From “It Depends,” an advice column about design and tech

Jon Bell
Jon Bell
Oct 1, 2018 · 5 min read

Today’s question comes from Nirawit:

I’ve heard you speak in the past about how you started a new job by introducing yourself to all your co-workers using a voiceover video. That is really cool.

My question is this: what are some things designers should do on their first few days at work to start off on the right foot?

This is a great question, because starting a new job is a lot like kicking off a new project. Like, for example, an advice column. Such as the one you’re currently reading! And the advice is surprisingly similiar whether a new job or a new project.

Understand your strengths

What works for one person might not work for another. Everything depends on context, and whatever you do should play to your strengths. For example, a voiceover video could work in some situations and backfire in others. Same with making a point to meet everyone on the team in your first week, or wearing a suit on your first day, or any other piece of advice. So step one is understanding how things seem to work best for you and your envrionment and leaning towards that sort of approach. Spend time thinking about this.

Note the gaps

Every person, or team, or company has things it’s better or worse at. Maybe you’re at a company that’s really good at selling boots but don’t have a very mature set of processes around design. Maybe your company has had a long track record making apps and now it’s struggling to move into wearables. See where the company needs some help to grow. Delight in everything that’s being done poorly, because those are places where you can make impact!

Bite your tongue

Designers are famous for parachuting onto a team and being overly negative about the current product, process, or team. I used to work with someone in Seattle who was infamous for doing this, and no one wanted to work with him. Surprise, surprise. Assume the people around you are aware of the problems you’re seeing, but also try to remember two things: they are your allies and they have knowledge that can help you if you let them. There will be plenty of time to judge and fix things later. When you’re new, it’s important to over-index on listening. Bite your tongue.

Frame things as solutions, not problems

Imagine some time has passed and you’re ready to start proposing ways to make things better. Be very careful not to point out a problem without a proposed solution. No one wants to hear “it’s crazy that we don’t have a wiki,” they want to hear “we’re going to be trialing a new wiki later this month, please let me know if anyone would like to help beta test it!” But getting there requires buy-in from your superiors. How do you get there? By listening well.

Listen well to build buy-in

Most things you want to achieve at a company are going to require someone agreeing with you. The way to get them to agree with you is to ask lots of questions and genuinely care about the answers. Sit down with your manager and ask “Hey, have we ever tried running an internal wiki for the team?” Maybe they have. Great. Ask “How did that go? What did we learn?” Take notes. Let their answers guide your response.

When you ask questions and stay curious, solutions have a way of presenting themselves. But when you lead with solutions (“We need a wiki”) and negativity (“I can’t believe we don’t have a wiki”) roadblocks spring up pretty fast. People want to be heard and collaborated with, not lectured to.

Be couragous

In some video games, you are invincible for the first few seconds of a new life. I try to keep that metaphor in mind when I start a new job. Sometimes it’s easier to push things forward when you’re brand new … as long as you’re curious, a good listener, and kind. It can be hard to find the courage, but the company hired you for a reason. Someone who is showing (good-natured) initiative stands out in a good way. But someone too afraid to offer ideas can get pigeonholed, which makes it harder and harder to raise your voice as time goes on.

Don’t fall into the designer clique

Designers have earned a reputation for being aloof and preferring the company of other designers. But in most modern design jobs, you’ll be spending far more time with your product managers and developers than your fellow designers. Act accordingly. Go to lunch with your engineering team. Learn the names of your PM’s kids. Build bridges outside the design team. And not just on a personal level: you should also try to learn about the business model of your company (lunch with a biz dev person!) and the tech stack you’re working with (coffee with a tech lead!)

Get a “studio voice”

It’s easy to disappear as a designer. Getting a “studio voice” means people know what you’re up to. You’re sending interesting links, sharing tips and tricks with the team, and so forth. It’s the digital equivilent of having a good personality. Everyone likes a good personality.

I’ve found that one or two messages sent in your first couple days can send a clear message that you have a studio voice and a digital personality. They don’t have to be anything special, but you do have to remember to speak up. You’re a designer, and it’s your job to communicate. Raise your studio voice.

A second opinion

This question has a lot of results on the web, including Here’s what that essay says:

  1. Learn about the culture
  2. Take voracious notes
  3. Meet with your manager in the first week
  4. Don’t piss anyone off
  5. Make friends and influence people
  6. If you make a mistake, admit it quickly and don’t make excuses
  7. Watch and observe
  8. Use spellcheck and one minute mail delay

I agree with everything, especially meeting the manager. There’s a great book called Being Geek that I’d highly recommend to learn more about how to best work with your manager. And when people ask what my favourite design book is, I usually surprise them when I tell them. It’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I recommend it to everyone I work with, and it is the most impactful book, by far, I have ever read about being a designer on a big team.

Hope that helps!


It Depends

An advice column about design and tech

Jon Bell

Written by

Jon Bell

I love building things.

It Depends

An advice column about design and tech

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