Laurel and Patrick have teamed up on countless design projects in the 10+ years we’ve known each other. Our collaboration spans work at three different companies, has focused on a range of industries, clients and challenges, and has involved working both side-by-side and 2,000 miles apart.
In the time since we began working together, the responsive web became a thing, Sketch dethroned Photoshop, and the world woke up to the idea that design can generate business value. And each of our roles, sometimes together and sometimes apart, shifted from “designer” to mentor, manager, director, instructor, project lead, product lead, practice lead, partner, and business owner.
Each shift in role required a shift in both perspective and approach. Some of those shifts came easily and some were really, really hard. Looking back, there’s lots of advice we’d like to give our younger selves. About who to emulate, what to do, where to focus, how to GTD and when to GTFO.
But it doesn’t work that way.
And since we can’t change the fact that we arrived in a very good place via the long, hard, and sometimes stupid route, we’re instead going to try to help you get to the same (or better) place the shorter, easier and smarter way.
Here are 9 pieces of advice for anyone and everyone working in design:
1. You have one job.
As a designer, your job will always be a mix of expertise and empathy. But mostly empathy. It’s essentially your responsibility to be empathetic to your users, customers, clients and colleagues. And to advocate for empathy in each interaction. Sometimes you’ll have to talk about it in terms of ROI, building trust and mitigating risk, but remember that your main role is to bridge the gap between something or things on one side (e.g. a business, a new technology) and real people on the other.
2. The way you do your job will forever evolve.
Speaking of expertise, the field is just going to keep changing. Embrace it! Focus on the stuff that makes the work more interesting to you. Don’t try to be an expert in everything. You’ll get exhausted, and this is a marathon. Even though we sprint a lot. (LOL. Patrick and Laurel high five.)
3. Focus on what, not how.
Whether you’re working with a client to finalize design changes or working with a direct report to formulate a new assignment, focus on what needs to be accomplished, not every single detail of how it’ll be accomplished.
In client communication, that means soliciting useful feedback on your work to identify places to improve. And it means translating prescriptive feedback (“make the button bigger”) into descriptive feedback (“the primary call-to-action isn’t clear”) so your expertise can drive the problem-solving process.
In conversations with people you manage, it means articulating the criteria you’ll use to evaluate an assignment. And providing as many examples, guides and check-ins as helpful so your team member’s expertise can drive their own problem-solving process.
4. Ask people for their secrets.
Whenever you see somebody do something way better than or way faster than you can to do it, ask them how. We’ve found that most people are willing to share their knowledge if you simply ask nicely.
So the next time you watch a colleague effectively convince a persnickety stakeholder to say “yes” or you see a co-worker breeze through a tedious task by using a few quick keyboard shortcuts, ask them how they did it. You’ll learn something new and they’ll be flattered that you noticed.
5. Don’t work with jerks.
Find people who take your opinions seriously, value your contributions and are just generally kind. There’s no need to work for an organization that harbors racists, sexists, homophobes or other assholes. Your skills have never been more in demand than they are right now. Take advantage of that demand to find a company brimming with people you’re excited to work with.
(Hey, Laurel speaking here. As a queer woman of color, I might appreciate these types of work environments more than most, and I want to put out there that while horrible people may not be immediately avoidable or dismissible, it’s possible to find places and people who are not just not terrible — there are people out there who are wonderful and will nurture you and help you grow. So, keep looking for them and hang on to them when you find them.)
6. Don’t be a jerk!
Obviously, don’t be an asshole (as per the paragraph above). Don’t gloat or condescend or be appalled if someone doesn’t know something. Don’t assume you’re the smartest person in the room and don’t act surprised when it becomes abundantly clear that you aren’t. Be kind and listen to people.
Also, heads up: the transition from being the youngest person in the room to being the oldest person in the room is gonna happen way faster than you realize. Approach both roles — and the ones in between — with humility.
Lastly, don’t be a jerk with what you design. Use your work to make things better. Always look for a way to support both business goals and the greater good; and if you have to pick between the two, pick the greater good.
7. “I don’t know” is a great short-term answer.
When moving between roles or teams or companies, it’s natural for there to be big gaps between what you currently know and what you eventually need to know. Even when you’re not in a period of transition, there will still be lots of times when you’ll be asked for answers you don’t have.
Avoid the urge to fake it.
Instead, provide a candid “I don’t know” paired with “but if you can provide a bit of context I’m sure we can figure it out” or “but I’ll find out and get back to you”. These are both infinitely better options than taking a guess at an answer or signing yourself up for something you don’t know how (or why) to do.
8. It’s almost never a matter of life and death.
We’re designers, not medics, which means you’ll rarely have a legitimate, work-based reason to panic. You’ll certainly have important meetings, difficult presentations, unexpected complications and pressing project deadlines. But none of these things will be made easier or better by stressing out about them.
And the vibe you bring to each of your meetings, presentations and projects will absolutely affect how they go. Often, the first time people will really get to hear what their users need or see what they’re trying to build is through what you communicate to them (and how you communicate it).
As such, the way you interact with your team or your clients — and the emotion with which you present your work — can have a huge positive or negative impact on their outlook. So stay positive. Try being like a duck.
9. Be like a duck*.
Spend a minute watching a duck glide across a pond and you’ll be struck by its seemingly effortless grace. Stick your head under the water and you’ll see a blur of webbed feet, moving frantically and frenetically in multiple directions at the same time.
Visible grace, invisible chaos. Steal that approach.
Because the energy you bring into the workplace is contagious; especially if you’re a leader in your organization. When you’re cool, calm and collected — even when things are going sideways — it sets a reassuring tone and standard. When you’re visibly stressed-out and freaked-out it sets a terrible, and equally contagious example.
So project grace when you’re visible to the broader organization. And then grab your boss, your teammates, and/or trusted colleagues, find a quiet place and get to work addressing the chaos at hand.
It’ll all be fine. Promise.
— Laurel and Patrick
Thanks to Stacey Wolcott for both the phrase and helping us be like ducks.
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