Why Designers Leave

Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass
5 min readJan 21, 2014


A designer may decide to leave for many reasons.

Some of those reasons are personal. Life occasionally has a way of beckoning us towards a path that is a river or a mountain or an ocean away.

Some of those reasons are ambitious. Just across town is a role that is a little bit more of everything we love about our current job. More responsibility, more chances to learn, more steps in the direction of our holy grail of projects, that thing we wake up a little scared and excited to build.

Some of those reasons are practical. It is never pleasant to admit, but when your ship is sinking, you jump and swim for dear life so you can make it to kinder shores.

But sometimes, it is none of these things. Sometimes, a designer finds herself working somewhere that is doing well, that has ample learning opportunities, that is wide open for impact. In such circumstances, why would a designer leave?

It seems crazy. But it is not uncommon.

Let’s say someone asked you to paint them a painting. A beautiful painting, a masterpiece, to be hung in the lobby of an Important Building.

“Great,” you say. You are an accomplished painter, and this is quite an exciting project. You ask what this painting should be of.

“Your speciality, of course. A peaceful landscape.”

It’s music to your ears. Snapshots of still seas, rolling hills, fluttering fields flash before your eyes. So many options. The next day, you start sketching some ideas.

The phone rings. “Great news! We’ve decided to host an Important Gala for the unveiling of your painting! Tons of Important People will be there! Unfortunately, the only date that will work for this gala is a month from today. Do you think you can finish the painting by then?”

You furrow your brows. 30 days is tight. Super tight. Normally you like three months. But a Gala… and all those Important People… You say yes. You head to your fridge and pull out a pack of red bull. It’s going to be a long month.

Fifteen days in, a second call comes. “Fantastic news! We‘re so excited about your painting we want to display it in a more prominent location. You know how it was going to be at the back of the lobby near reception? Well now, it’ll be the first thing people see when they enter! It’ll be magnificent! There’s just one tiny issue… In order to fit the new wall, we’re going to need a smaller painting. 25% smaller. Can you make that happen?”

You grit your teeth and tell them there’s not enough time to start a new painting unless the deadline changes.

“Well, we can’t do that! The gala’s all ready to go. Can’t you just crop off a bit of the painting?”

You look at your half-completed work. To fit the new constraints, you’d need to discard the mountains that frame the fields. It’s doable, technically. But it’d be a different painting. A worse painting.

But think of your clients. You don’t want to let them down. And to have your painting so prominently displayed… where all those people will see it…

You say yes. With a slight twinge, you cut out the mountains.

Twenty-five days in, a third call comes. “Incredible news! We’ve all been admiring the photo you sent of your work in progress, and we showed the Owner of the Building. He loves how it’s turning out. In fact, he’s willing to commission another set of ten paintings for an Enormous Sum of Money! But he has a tiny request… You see, capybaras are his spirit animal, and he’d really love it if you could include a capybara in your current painting.”

You’re flabbergasted. What on earth is a capybara? You tell them you don’t know what to say as you frantically initiate a Google image search.

“Say you’ll do it, of course! They’ll liven up the painting. Imagine… a whole family of capybaras!”

When the results load, your stomach drops.

Who the hell chooses capybara as their spirit animal? They’re weird-looking for sure, and there’s no way they would be hanging out in a field at sunset. This whole conversation is crazy talk.

You argue vehemently against this new requirement. But the Important People on the phone are persuasive. They tell you this is what they want, and that everyone will love it because capybaras are the hot new thing in the art world right now. They ask you to consider the prestige of completing an Important Painting for an Important Building. They tell you they will simply find another artist if you are unwilling.

Ultimately, it is beyond your capability to say no. With a nervous twitch, you begin sketching an oversized guinea pig onto your tranquil canvas.

Thirty days in, the painting is complete. It commands a prestigious spot near the entrance, and is impossible to miss when you walk in. The gala to celebrate the unveiling of your painting is spirited and lively. The Important People, with champagne in hand, toast you and your work. By the end of the night, your voicemail is overflowing with commission requests. By every external measure, you’ve succeeded.

You know the truth, though. No matter what people say, you’ll always know the truth. It doesn’t matter if each decision along the way felt logical at the time. Whenever you gaze upon Capybara Sunset, you will see that the concept feels rushed, the composition is off, and the subject matter makes no sense.

The work did not represent what you valued. The work, ultimately, was not something you are proud of.

Every person who works in a creative field has an aspiration for her work, a yearning for that ideal plane which is the culmination of her taste.

When an environment fails, over and over and over again, to provide her with a means to follow her internal compass, then she will leave.

If you are in a position to influence that kind of environment, take heed. Lay the foundations for a space that nurtures, that yields the kind of work the best creative people can be proud of.

Then, you will not need to ask why designers leave.

P.S. If you are looking for a new gig, Facebook is hiring. While I can’t promise no more capybara sunsets in your future ever, I can promise that this issue here is something we are focused on, and that I am personally very passionate about.

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Julie Zhuo
The Year of the Looking Glass

Building Sundial (sundial.so). Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.