Matching a Designer to the Right Project

The first time I sit down with a designer who’s just joined my team, I try and understand the answer to one very specific question.

What is it that motivates you?

Every designer is different. In How to Work With Designers, I describe some of these differences when it comes to the various disciplines of design. But strengths aren’t the only criteria. Values matter just as much. No project stands alone; every project is part of a career, part of the story of somebody’s life’s work. It’s important that that story makes sense in a deep and personal way.

Of course, there are a number of values most designers share. But saying that a designer cares about quality or impact is kind of like saying a chef care about food. The nuances matter enormously here. When we get down to brass tacks and tradeoffs, what matters most to any given designer?

Over the years, I’ve developed the following framework to think about that question. There are no right or wrong answers, nothing that is more or less good. In getting to know any designer as a colleague and friend, these are the three things I try to understand:

What kind of impact is most important to you?

  1. Utilitarian: I want my work to create as much value for as many people as possible. For you, design is a means of improving lives, of solving problems at scale. Ever the pragmatist, you look at things from a 10,000 foot view, and you empathize with those who aren’t like you. Your aunt, for example, whose tech tastes are about three years behind yours. Or that village just getting online in Tanzania. Are more people in the world using Android? Then you’ll say goodbye to iOS7 and hello to sweet treats. Are your users tripping over the registration flow? Then you’ll be the first to create five dozen fake e-mails in order to stress test that flow and make it better. People like you lead research initiatives, solve problems in unfamiliar markets, or build your own companies. These may not be the sexiest problems in the world, but these are the problems that touch the most people, and doing right by them is what keeps you up at night.
  2. Bellwether: I want my work to be heralded as a prime example for our industry.There is such a thing as beauty and perfection in the world, and the pursuit of that is your deepest passion. You are a true craftsperson. You wear your work in everything you do. Jiro might dream of sushi, but you dream of design that connects, that has an emotional resonance. No detail is too small for you—the weight of a set of icons, whether the edges on that button seem too sharp, whether that delete swipe feels fun. You want your work to make somebody’s eyes light up with wonder. You care about innovation, about producing design that is ahead of its class. People like you become creative directors or design leads. Even if your work doesn’t directly touch the most people, it’s the kind of work that inspires legions of other designers, and that will shape the norms for years to come.
  3. Amplifier: I want my work to magnify the impact of those around me. Rome wasn’t built by a single pair of hands, and so you understand that anything worth doing will not be fulfilled by the work of any single individual. That’s where you come in. You help others do their best work. Clearing obstacles, saving time, building frameworks, aiding a group to come to the best decision—few things are more satisfying to you. You love design and want to see it thrive through the harmonious meeting of many talented individuals. People like you spend time mentoring, teaching, building, or managing design teams.

What’s the best way for you to learn?

  1. I want to learn by being inspired, challenged, and pushed by others. It’s important to you that you’re surrounded by people you look up to. You are hungry to grow, to elevate your craft and get plenty of hands-on feedback by those with more skill or experience.
  2. I want to learn by doing and leading. You’ve built up solid foundations up to this point, and now you’re looking for a role that will allow you to grow as a leader. Expanding your scope of responsibility is the best way to teach you the skills you’re interested in learning.

What kind of design problems are the most interesting to you?

  1. Strategic problems. You’re into large, ambiguous problems like how to get buyers to trust sellers in a marketplace, or how to tell if users think your content is good (and how it could be better). You’re constantly asking yourself: one year from now, how should users be thinking about Product X?
  2. Interaction problems. Making your users’ experience as easy and delightful as possible is your mantra. How can you make sharing a photo discoverable and fun? How can you explain to your users that they have control over what they see? You are fascinated by the way other apps do things, and constantly analyze how effective they are.
  3. Visual problems. You have a hawk’s eye for detail, for understanding at a very technical level why some layouts work better than others. What kind of aesthetic conveys playful or trustworthy? Should our brand to come off strong or muted? These are the types of questions you love to explore.

Obviously, you can’t make a decision about who should work on what without considering skills in tandem, but coupled with the above framework, it becomes much easier to figure out the best projects for someone. A designer who wants to have amplifier impact should be given opportunities to mentor other designers or lead a cross-functional design effort. A designer who cares deeply about being an influencer and working on interaction problems should probably design for early-adopter platforms. A designer who values utility and strategy should consider joining the growth team. A designer who wants to learn the craft of beautiful pixels should join a team with a more experienced visual designer to guide her. A designer who wants to lead should be matched with a team that has fewer senior folks so she gets a chance to shine.

At the end of the day, what each of us believes in and what each of us is looking for isn’t exactly the same. It’s important that we find work—meaningful work—that aligns with what matters. Because the arc of your life’s work matters. Because that’s what keeps you fulfilled.

Only then will that work be your finest.

P.S: Want to have a chat about what motivates you? Facebook Design is hiring.