How to Be That Designer

The one that everyone *loves* to work with

Julie Zhuo
Jan 6, 2015 · 6 min read

It’s the new year, and of course you have ambitious goals. To accomplish them, you’re probably going to need to work with other people. Here’s a handy guide for how you can attain the singular status of being that designer.

1. Choose a cool project.

Of all the things you can do to make yourself look talented, thoughtful, smart, creative, and good-looking this year, picking the right project is the most important. There are two strategies you can employ:

  1. Look for something that not a lot of people use except you and your designer friends. That way, your friends will think you’re awesome and want to talk with you about what you’re working on all the time, but nobody else will really care so you don’t need to argue with them about the decisions you’re making.
  2. Look for something teens are into. That way, when someone says, Oh, you work on obscure-product-name? What’s that? you can tell them The teens are so into it and it will earn you instant credibility because everyone knows that teens are the canary-in-the-coal-mine of coolness.

Remember, your primary goal here is to make your designer friends jealous of what you’re working on. If you get them wishing they could do what you do, then the logical conclusion is that you must be better than them.

2. Be sparing with your praise.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. If you praise something and it’s not actually perfect, you’ll have outed yourself as someone with questionable taste and low standards.
  2. If you praise only one thing a year, everyone will think you’re incredibly thoughtful and wonder, “wow, how can I get X to praise my work?” Instantly, you will elevate your status among your peers as that-person-everyone-wants-to-impress.

Don’t fall into the trap of doling out encouraging remarks or pointing out the good in someone’s work. That kind of behavior will only make you look embarrassingly mainstream and undiscerning.

3. If someone isn’t into your idea, tell them all the reasons why they should care about the user experience.

If someone’s not into your idea because “while it’s interesting, it’s not clear we should prioritize it,” they’re obviously anti-user, and you need to help them see the light. An excellent tactic here is to take a deep breath and then launch into an impassioned speech on the value of people-centered thinking. Feel free to throw in a few of these choice phrases:

  1. We should strive to do what’s best for people, even if it’s hard.
  2. I really care about the quality of our user experience. Don’t you?
  3. What’s the point of working on this if we’re not going to make it any good for anyone?
  4. I don’t believe in prioritizing numbers over people.
  5. We can’t achieve greatness if we don’t take risks.

If that person counters that they’re not disagreeing with your values, only with the merits of the idea, ignore them and continue talking until they give up and see things your way. (Remember: filibustering work.)

4. If the above doesn’t work, question whether your company culture supports creativity.

If people still aren’t into your idea even after you go to great lengths to explain the value of the user experience, the problem may be deeper. Look the other person in the eye, sigh loudly, and say “I’m worried our company culture is starting to close its doors on creativity.” Nobody wants to be associated with a company that’s starting to get all status-quosy, so this should turn the tide in your favor. Also, this has the added benefit of making you look incredibly insightful for observing and bringing up such an important negative trend about the company.

5. Trust that your intuition is always right.

Do you think Steve Jobs doubted his intuitions about the iPhone? No! Of course not! So why should you? Your intuition is what got you into this game, so trust it. Remain staunch in the face of those who want you to betray that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Don’t change course from what you feel, not when qualitative or quantitive findings say otherwise, and not when people bring you new information you weren’t aware of before.

6. Assert your creativity by surprising people with what you’re working on.

While you might have promised your team you’d flesh out a specific design proposal by Tuesday, what everyone really wants to see instead when the weekly team meeting rolls around is a sick new concept for a completely unrelated idea, like banana racing. Because when the creative muse knocks on your door, any designer worth their salt would be stupid not to answer. After all, genius doesn’t work on a schedule. Genius just is. And creativity, when done best, is like a surprise party. A surprise party full of banana racing! (Not that there are some people who don’t like surprise parties, but that’s because they’re boring.)

7. When presenting your designs, make sure to show every single iteration.

Think about it. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If you did 24 variations of a design but only show 3, did you even do the work of the other 21? Of course not. Don’t be an idiot. Show all 24 versions, and make sure to talk through the minute details of each. People will be so impressed with how hard you’ve worked that they’ll automatically agree with whatever you’re saying. Don’t worry if their eyes start glazing over and the main discussion points get lost in the analysis of how the line width changed between Iteration 17 and Iteration 18. Since you’re taking up all that mic time, even if no one’s listening, you’ll appear smart and important.

8. Evaluate a design proposal by whether its visuals are polished.

If someone asks you to take a look at their work, remember this one foolproof shortcut: if the visuals are bad, then the idea is bad. Conversely, if the visuals are good, then the idea is good. This handy trick will save you loads of precious time so you can get back to more important endeavors. If you’re asked to offer suggestions, remark upon the typeface used and suggest a few other ones in the same family. Or, toss out a critique of the spacing, something like “are you sure the elements aren’t too floaty?” You can also never go wrong discussing whether the look is “fun” enough.

9. Don’t agree to do anything “growth”-related.

When someone says the word “growth,” they might as well be uttering the word “drudgery,” because working on anything growth-related is pretty much like washing dishes by hand with a toothbrush. Never mind the fact that for your work to have any impact, people need to figure out how to find and use the thing you are building. To grow something means to un-innovate it. Is un-innovate even a word? Who cares! If you get a whiff that someone might be “talking growth” with words like “internationalize” and “funnel,” it’s a clear sign that you should try and slip out of the room before anyone notices.

10. Be sure to express a scathing opinion if a company you are familiar with puts out some bad work.

The easiest way to make others aware of how high your bar is and how intolerant you are of poor-quality work is to take to the Internetz and viciously condemn another company for putting out something subpar. Be aware that many other people will have this same idea, so the more chock full of zing your remark is, the better. You must pay serious attention to this competition because the person who manages to take the biggest shit over the bad work is clearly the best designer of all, and you should try hard to let the world know that that person is you.

On a serious note, while these are written to be tongue-in-cheek, designing, being an art and not a science, means there’s no absolute right way to go about things. I’ve done all of these at some point. Sometimes the problem is indeed that the company culture is not open to bold new ideas, or is too metrics-driven. At the end of the day, these tips aren’t good or bad at face value, but rather in the context of a particular situation. This article was meant to portray the extremes of when that balance goes awry, because it’s easy to look to the environment or complain about other factors when the most common problem is that our work just isn’t good enough.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.