Design is Messy & Embarrassing…but You’d Never Know it

One of my embarrassing messes.

When I plant a seed in the garden (I’ve done this once), my instant gratification nature doesn’t want to wait even a month for it to finish growing. God help me if I plant a tree.

I’m more interested in the final result.

How often do we go to art museum’s expecting to see an unfinished work? Never. We want to see the Mona Lisa. The Starry Starry Night. The weird sculptures with fractured twigs and berries.

Be honest, how often have you looked at something in an art museum and said to yourself, “Bah, I can do that!”? Raise your hand. Me too.

What we don’t see before us is the blood, sweat and tears that goes into the finished work. We don’t see the hours, months, years put into what we’re beholding.

What about design?

Design is not art. Design is problem solving. Design can (and does) save lives every day.

Artists are so good at showing their process in self-expression (examples below). Designers on the other hand, who are at best saving lives and at least trying to improve them often hide the messy process it took us to get to the *completed work.

*Design is never done.

I think it’s because we’re too embarrassed to show our crappy drawings, disparate thoughts, and failed assumptions that were necessary in our design explorations.

My latest superguest Femke talks a lot about how we need more crappy work. She states in our recent User Defenders interview:

“I think there are so many hidden gems in the process, and in the mistakes that we often keep hidden because we’re ashamed of it. We wanna show off the final fancy thing because it makes us look cool or professional, or really experienced. Obviously those things do have to eventually be shared, the world will eventually see it. I just think it’s a shame that we hold so much of the process back.” — Femke

She’s right, and ya know what…

I think we’ve all been using Dribbble wrong

As I mention on the episode, Dan Cederholm (Dribbble creator) originally intended on it being a platform that’s used to show works-in-progress.

At some point Dribbble turned into a friggin’ art gallery…a museum of fine art. Many UI shots you’ll encounter will never actually be used by a human being.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some incredible ideas on there that I’ve been absolutely blown away and inspired by. It’s just that immediately after my eyes have ‘bogarted that joint’, I end up feeling like the designer doesn’t want me to pay any attention to the man (or *woman) behind the curtain.

*I’m happily married, so would try to avoid looking at the woman behind the curtain.

Just feels like we don’t get to see how the sausage is made anymore.

Did you think I was going to get through this subject matter without talking about how sausage is made? Such a weird statement…but it works!

I’ve decided from now on, anytime I post a shot to Dribbble, I’m going to include at least one embarrassing process artifact.

Would you join me in doing the same?

Let’s embrace the process

Although it’s true that the processes shown below appear pretty polished, we still get to see (everyone now) 🎶 how the sausage is made.

Jackson Pollock’s groundbreaking painting process is arguably even more interesting than the art itself. Like many things in life, his discovery of his signature technique was a total happy accident:

Tell me you don’t appreciate Pomplamoose’s songs even more when you get to actually see how they make them??

It’s easy to appreciate Sean McCabe’s beautiful lettering work even more when you observe his process.

Speaking of Sean McCabe…check out this quote from him, it pretty much sums up this whole article. It really puts a bow on it. I should’ve closed with this darnit! The last quote is really good too though!

“If you don’t put out an imperfect version of yourself, you’re not creating a story of how you got better that someone else can benefit from.” — Sean McCabe

Process matters

Especially in this work. Any design shop worth hanging your hat at will almost always be more interested in seeing your process than your final work. They’ll want to know things like:

  • What was the thinking behind your design decisions?
  • Who’s the audience?
  • What was your process?
  • Why did you choose this direction?
  • What was the business problem being solved?
  • How did this design solve the problem?
  • Was there a lift in delight and numbers?

I’m reminding myself of these things too as someone who doesn’t even have a portfolio online anymore (one day I’ll make time…sigh). Because unless we’re documenting our work/results along the way, it’s pretty hard (and time-consuming) to go back later and try and remember it all.

When we post a polished shot on Dribbble or our portfolio without explanation and/or visuals of the process that got us there, we may be doing a disservice to ourselves (it could cost us a potential dream job), and it could easily discourage newer designers who may feel like they’ll never just fire up Sketch or Photoshop and achieve that level of pixel-perfection in the perceived moments that it took us.

Yes, design is messy & embarrassing


We could all use a dose of humility every once in a while.

As somewhat of a “white-collar” worker, my hands are as smooth as a baby’s butt. I know immediately when I’m shaking hands with a craftsperson, because I feel those leathery callouses of experience, and hard work squashing mine in their firm grip.

Image credit: Adam Welch

Let’s be proud of our virtual callouses

Let’s leave no designer behind.

Let’s be more vulnerable and open about our failures and imposter syndrome.

Let’s become more complete designers together by embracing the mess…and blushing a little more often.

“We’d be doing the world a huge favor if we showed it our mistakes and sweaty, working process more than our polished, finished product.” — Derek Sivers

If you found value in this article, would you help other designers find it too by giving this a huge round of 👏?

This article was first published on the User Defenders podcast Bi-Weekly Bugle.

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