Moving to a City that Values Design

Photo: sfgirlbythebay

Growing up 15 minutes away from Disneyland, I was obsessed with all things Walter Elias Disney and specifically desired to be an “Imagineer”, which encompasses any creative role that helps to shape and build the Disney parks. Imagineers include concept illustrators, animators, sculptors, engineers, musicians, writers, and designers. Disneyland has evoked childhood nostalgic emotions at every stage of my 29 year old life. And even from a very young age, I wondered how a group of people (the Imagineers) managed to make me feel nostalgic every time I visited Disneyland. How did they create this happy experience through every facet for so many people? I wanted to be an “Imagineer” at every company I worked for, where my job would be to help shape an emotion or an experience for others. But, I also really wanted to live at Disneyland.

Photo: sfgirlbythebay

San Francisco is very similar to Disneyland. Yes, San Francisco has a large collection of Victorian architecture that looks exactly like Main Street, Disneyland. But, really it’s a Disneyland for designers. Its small landscape is full of creative people who all want to help shape experiences for the world. Obviously, I’m referring to technology-oriented positions, but designing in San Francisco is really no different from being a Disney Imagineer.

After a few years in a publicly-traded manufacturing company that did not value design or anything creative, I remembered why I became an Illustrator and a Designer. I wanted that feeling back every time I entered Disneyland. So I took a leap one year ago and moved to my favorite city and to a company that values design. But, there was an incredible culture shock when I moved from a company and city that didn’t care about design to a community that was centered around design. Here are the lessons I learned in my first year of transition.

  1. Huh? You want my opinion? For my first 6 months in the San Francisco Bay Area and at SalesforceIQ, I expected to be treated the same as I had always been: a producer without opinions. Much like a factory chicken that lays countless eggs. So when my new boss invited me to a meeting to help shape their first campaign of Q1, I wondered if it was an accident that I was included. What purpose did I have there? I thought I was supposed to just make a finished and well-designed illustration rather than helping to shape the campaign itself; owning the potential results from the beginning. Guess what? If you join the right company, you will be expected to be the creative voice and be proactive with that voice. Your purpose is to both help the team solve problems and design the solution. Not just agree to projects that are handed down to you. Question those projects if you are ever presented with them. Question the problem that the team wants to solve, and make sure that it is the right problem to solve. Surface any potential problems that require attention before others may see them. But, do all of this without ego or negativity — you want to be seen as a helpful and collaborative teammate.
  2. Befriend everyone. My last position did not promote an environment that expected you to get to know every role or every person in the company. It was frankly just too big to do that effectively. But, it wasn’t even set up as a culture that promoted friendliness between co-workers. People worked in tiny houses (cubicles) that didn’t allow for collaboration, critiques, or any sort of discussion. Having non-work related conversations led to managers scolding subordinates. Spending company money on culture-building activities never existed. Which is why it was a shock that SalesforceIQ expected me to spend money on drinks with co-workers multiple times a week or grab coffee and lunch with people who didn’t directly work with me. Lesson learned? I gained the most design insight from co-workers that I never thought would have a part of my design process before. I’m better at presenting design because I got tipsy a few times with co-workers who now have greater insight into who I am as a person and how I look at design and the company as a whole. Those people will probably be more willing to understand and support design decisions in the future because you took the time to get to know them outside of the office. Also, get to know everyone — even the newly-hired intern. New employees and junior team members have a fresh perspective on problems, so utilize them. Eat, drink, and be genuinely friendly to everyone.
  3. Tell your boss when something is wrong. Sure, you can have a bad boss even in San Francisco. I have learned countless lessons from bad managers, but you’ll probably have a better boss in a company whose culture values design. Since I came from a company that was not empathetic to their employees’ personal lives, I came into my new job thinking that personal lives stay at home and do not enter the workplace. There was one month in 2015 that was particularly tough for me in my new role at SalesforceIQ. I was designing and planning my wedding that would take place at the end of the month at the same time that I was working on the largest project of the year, also due at the end of the month. I had signed on to too many projects and wasn’t honest about how my personal life could potentially derail me from what I wanted to accomplish. When it was clear that I would fail to finish the projects that I signed on to do, my boss had to be the one to bring it up because I was unwilling to admit the impact that my personal life had on my ability to be as effective as possible at work. However, she didn’t scold me nor was she upset with me. Without me bringing up the topic directly, she knew that it was a tough month for me and she was supportive. She took projects off my plate (that weren’t a high priority) so that I could regain focus rather than completing many half-ass projects. If I had told her from the beginning what was going on in my personal life, and only signed on to the projects that I knew really mattered, I would have avoided putting us both through stress and she would have set me up for success by bringing in others to help. Trust leaders that value design. The best leaders want to know what is going on in your life and want to make you successful. The Bay Area is full of those types of leaders.
  4. Contact your Walt Disney. You know the best part about living in a city that is full of talented creative folks? Many of the artists/designers/illustrators that you are a fan-girl/boy of live down the street from you. And they’re friendly, too! I was astonished when I contacted an illustrator that I was obsessed with for a few years that he was excited to meet with me over coffee. But, it happened with others again and again. I’m still nervous about contacting designers that I’ve been stalking on social media, and yet no one has ever turned me down for coffee. I always get the best advice and walk away with new-found inspiration and hunger for the work I do. Never stop meeting those who inspire you and learn from those experiences.
  5. Take a field trip once a week. If your current workplace doesn’t understand design’s purpose or how creative minds work, it likely also has a problem with people working somewhere other than the office. But, my best work in 2015 always came while working from coffee shops. This is something that I could never get my previous company to understand. So it was great when SalesforceIQ totally understood why hiding in a Blue Bottle down the street was imperative to creating fresh ideas. Every week, I still hide somewhere in San Francisco and come back to the office the next day refreshed and renewed, like I was at a spa. Going to a museum or just sitting in the sun in the middle of the work day creates ideas that I wouldn’t have had sitting in a hour-long meeting or staring at my monitor. Solutions came more naturally when I wasn’t forcing them in the office environment.
Photo: sfgirlbythebay

There are hundreds of lessons I learn everyday by living and working in an area that promotes design thinking. For 2016, I urge you to move to your Disneyland whether that means to a whole new city, a new company, freelancing, or staying at your current design-focused company. But, maybe once in your life, move to San Francisco.