Having spent nearly twenty years in a career that’s centered around design and technology, it should be no surprise that I talk with a lot of designers. These days I work closely with several design schools. Just last month I was visiting a school in New York and during a portfolio review a student asked me a question that I often hear from creatives who are in the early stages of their career:
“What one thing should I focus on that would help me grow my career?”
To which I usually answer — “just keep making stuff.”
Which usually begs the follow up question — “okay, but make what, and how?”
Find a focus and dive in.
Look for a problem that you’d like to solve so that the tools become a means to an end. For example, while a chef might be masterful with their knife, the ultimate goal is not to focus on this single technique, but instead to craft the entire dish or cuisine. The same can be said for fixating on Photoshop style tutorials. Yes, you might be able to create the most believable digital texture or abstract background — but unless you plan to go into a career making game art, this seems like a distracted way to focus your time. I have yet to be in a meeting where the main problem we’re trying to solve is bringing digitized elements of nature into an experience.
So what’s the problem that you’re going to solve? Think about something that doesn’t exist today, or something that you feel has been executed in a less-than-perfect way because of its complexity, or poor performance, or lack of usefulness and enjoyment — something where you can imagine greater potential and feel that you have the tools and experience to make it. That’s where you want to direct your focus. There’s an endless supply of problems like this, and its absolutely fine to start small.
What follows is a personal history of how I found my career path through being less than satisfied with the norm, and how that inspired me to improve experiences through doing rather than saying, which is the basis for my recommendation.
How I got hooked.
My first problem was simple. It was 1996, my father had a small consulting business and a domain, but he didn’t have a website. What a great opportunity! A blank canvas with the intent of serving a purpose, all it needed was some identity and content. Now this was a perfect problem for me to fixate on.
At first I iterated on a simple site centered around a logo, which was its own tangential stylistic evolution. I would position the logo on a page using a WYSIWYG editor and massage some content around it. Based on the rate of build, destroy, rebuild, I began to dive a little deeper into the building blocks of the page to see what else I could make it do. I learned to jam some PERL snippets in place to handle simple forms and email. Now I had content and page flows and things were evolving quickly. Almost immediately I recognized the freedom and potential for creativity in this space.
Going back to our cooking metaphor, at this point I began to understand ingredients combined with technique and a little bit of personality. I had found a place where I could lose myself and learn at a pace governed only by time and patience. It was the start of my career, I was motivated and focused like never before.
Over the coming years I would continue to seek out more problems. I built intranets and extranets and brochure websites. I built tools for the design community that continued to inspire me. I built lightweight MVC frameworks and content management systems for sites that spanned a spectrum of industries and clients. I built content aggregation tools and business workflow utilities. Whatever the problem was, I was able to imagine solution and dive headlong into building it.
Most importantly, the small individual problems that I was setting out to solve were compounding into more complex systems.
I was exploring styles/cuisines.
Collaboration drives inspiration.
In 2000 my career brought me to San Francisco. Alone in a new city, I spent my days working on software while my nights and weekends were committed to freelance projects, design community collaborations, and experimenting with newly popularized web tools and tech. Pressured to improve upon my previous works, I was raising my own bar of commitment. This developed into something of an obsession with a tense balance between my day job and my freelance projects. I was learning new techniques, experimenting with new technologies, and architecting my own tools. I was invigorated, but I was exhausted.
By the middle of 2001 I quit my day job to more freely focus on my growing freelance business. By this time I had developed a foundation of partnerships with people from the design community who were fueling my creativity and inspiration, peers who were helping me continue to push my own limits.
This is when I realized the power of collaborating with likeminded makers, when I began to understand how augmenting your own skills with the complementary talents of others can produce results far greater than you might ever imagine on your own.
This added a whole new dimension to what we could make.
Less than a year later I teamed up with my two closest collaborators, the people that thought about the details and personality and entirety of experiences in the same way that I did. We pooled our nickels, printed some business cards, sublet some office space and launched Cuban Council, a company that we’d continue to shape for the next 10 years; a company that was forged from the same principles of craft and culture that got me hooked on making from the get-go.
You’re never too busy to tinker.
Nowadays I spend most of my time working to make Google a better place for design and designers. But nearly twenty years after that first one page brochure site that I built for my dad, I still look for problems, and I still explore curiosities in ways that push my imagination through making.
Here are some examples of a few personal projects aimed to address very selfish problems or curiosities. While not very complex, they’ve provided a creative outlet and satisfaction.
I spend one day a week in SF, and my commute times and stations vary drastically, so I need to get BART station and train line info that’s relevant to my time and location.
My problem is that all of the other transit apps require me to make a bunch of choices just to get general schedule info. So I created a one-tap, contextually relevant train estimates web app called NearTrain. Here’s a glimpse into realtime data near West Oakland.
Out Around Me
Another example that was more about exploring a curiosity is Out Around Me, a tool that I built to scratch an itch one rainy house-bound Saturday afternoon in 2010 while my youngest son was napping. With the constantly updating content stream on Instagram, it seemed like a great opportunity to combine Google Maps with Instagram’s search API to get a near realtime glimpse (through other people’s photos) of any location on the planet. I was also looking for a way to set a point on a map that worked efficiently and precisely across desktop and mobile within a single web UI.
My day job is demanding, my home life is demanding, both are extremely important and fulfilling, but that doesn’t preclude me from selfishly exploring ways to address problems and curiosities.
There’s something addictive about the creation, iteration, feedback, and instant gratification that comes from making. It’s mine, I can do it just about any time from any place, all I have to do is find an appetite for a problem and dive in.
What’s one thing that young designers should focus on? When looking back at my own career, my advice is this…
- You need a problem to solve or a curiosity to explore in order to define a goal.
- You need to dive into the work, but don’t get distracted by extraneous process or technique, stay focused on your goal.
- Cohorts can enhance the making in the most surprising and satisfying ways.
Whether you imagine a signature dish or an entire cuisine, get to making!