Which environment will better allow me to grow and thrive as a designer? This was the question I asked myself many times before making the cross-country move from San Francisco to New York. In an environment of exposure I’m surrounded by the crème de la crème of product design: inspiration, mentorship, and advice all at my fingertips. Yet the idea of working in isolation would allow me the opportunity to develop my own individual perspectives, methods, and philosophies outside of the dominating opinion of the Bay Area’s tech elite. The jury’s still out — is it accessibility to examples of excellence or isolating independence that will contribute more to my development as a designer?
I recently took a recruiting trip to my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon. While chatting with students I’d casually drop the usual hot startups: Airbnb, GitHub, Uber… only to be met with the kind of blank stares reserved for crazy people who speak made-up languages. At first I was all… wtf are they teaching these kids?? However! Once the portfolios were busted out I was reminded of the conceptual ingenuity that makes CMU’s design program shine. It’s actually kind of refreshing not to be inundated with yet another minimalist mobile app landing page. Tucked away in the mid-sized metropolis of Pittsburgh, there’s this lack of pressure to emulate the same old success stories, resulting in an environment where exploration is more valued than execution.
This isn’t a debate exclusive to the tech industry. When fashion blogger Jane Aldridge turned 18, it was expected that the stylish prodigy would take her place amongst fashion’s elite in it’s Manhattan mecca. She surprised them all by choosing to stay in her hometown of Dallas, Texas instead. The reason? To continue cultivating her individual style outside the influence of the often dictatorial fashion media. We see it all the time in film and music as well, refreshing new faces from foreign locales breaking through the cruft of Hollywood’s tried and true.
The idea of exposure and isolation extends beyond just geography. A few times in my career I’ve found myself at a crossroads deciding between a variety of potential work environments. I could have benefitted just as much from joining a strong and established design team at a company like Facebook or Google as I did figuring it out on my own as the sole designer at a young startup.
It may seem like I lean towards the idea of building in isolation, but living in New York for the past six months, I must admit I miss the environment of exposure. Folks praise New York for it’s diversity, because “not everyone works in tech” but the thing is I love what I do. I love it so much I want to talk about it all the damn time and I miss doing that. I miss not having to explain my work in layman’s terms and instead getting down to the details. I miss having the confidence that I could have such a conversation with a stranger I met in a bar or on the BART. I felt like I learned something from those dialogues. It made me feel more inspired and ultimately better at my job.
In the end, the stance I’ll take is kind of a cop-out. Rather than deciding between exposure and isolation, how about that oscillation? Whatever you’re doing now, try something different. Living abroad or even just in middle America can provide meaningful context for the products we work on. Likewise, don’t be intimidated at the idea of being “in the thick of it.” Leave the cushy company for the startup. Leave the startup for Facebook. Just remember that you can always go home, whatever “home” might be to you. I’m still trying to figure it out for myself.