I’d like you to imagine that I wrote a profound, heartfelt introduction to this essay. An introduction that conveyed my commitment to helping designers have more satisfying careers. An introduction that made you say, “Yeah, what this guy said? I’m all in.”
Because it’s nearly midnight on New Year’s Eve and I’ve got bubkus. Nada. No matter how many times I’ve tried, I can’t come up with a fitting introduction. Maybe it’s the three slices of pizza, two sugar cookies, and one gin and tonic, but I can’t seem to tee this up quite right.
Nonetheless, I want to share these ideas with you before we get too far into 2022. Basically, this is a brief and incomplete list of suggestions I regularly offer the designers I work with when they ask me, as they often do, “How can I grow as a designer?”
Spoiler: none of these have anything to do with getting better at making bezier curves or understanding proper typography.
Write down the main reason (or two) you decided to become a designer. What was it you hoped to be doing? If you’re not doing it, ask yourself if it matters. If it matters, figure out some steps you can take to get things back on track. Small steps are fine.
Memorize at least ten deign heuristics. Learn them inside and out. Study examples of each. Arm yourself with this knowledge during any and all discussions, and use them when your team seems to be making decisions based on subjective rather than objective criteria. Most importantly, use these heuristics to make your own work better and more bulletproof. Contrary to what you may think, transitioning from opinion-based to evidence-based design is one of the most liberating things you’ll do for yourself as a designer.
Need a start?
Get good at presenting your work and the thinking you put into it. Ask friendly but honest colleagues to give you feedback on your presentations. Rehearse beforehand. And if you’re in an org where you’re not permitted to present your work, consider this a career impediment and make plans accordingly. Note: you won’t always be able to present your work, but it should be the norm, not the exception.
Once a month, ask someone from another team — product management, engineering, editorial, analytics, sales, customer support — to have coffee with you (yes, virtual coffee is fine, too). Keep it informal. Start by telling them a little about yourself and why you wanted to chat with them. Then ask what they’re up to, what’s on their mind, and ask if you might partner in the future. I cannot begin to describe how much you’ll learn and grow from these informal conversations, and how you’ll elevate your presence within your org. You’ll just have to trust me on this.
Ask your boss for a skip level meeting—a meeting with your boss’s boss. It might feel a little intimidating, but these meetings are as beneficial for the boss’s boss as they are for you. Basically, skip level meetings break down barriers, giving each participant an opportunity to get firsthand exposure to parts of the org they might not otherwise experience. In a well-run skip level meeting, you’ll be asked more questions than you’ll ask, but come prepared with questions nonetheless. While you should never be a suck-up or shameless self-promoter, skip level meetings are an opportunity for you to elevate your presence within the org, and that’s rarely a bad thing.
Connect with peers who work in user research, analytics, sales, or customer support. In many orgs, these are the people closest to the end user. Set up recurring meetings with these peers. Invite them to shared Slack channels. Ask them for any data or insights they can share, and seek their feedback when you’re working through a design problem. Being as close to end users as possible not only keeps your work honest, it will imbue your work with purpose and meaning you might otherwise miss.
Write a short but meaningful LinkedIn recommendation for one of your peers—from any team—once a month. Be sincere and specific. The point isn’t to ingratiate yourself, but to let them know you appreciate what they do. If LinkedIn isn’t your thing, send them a quick Slack message or email acknowledging how they’ve helped you, and why you’re grateful to work with them. If you’re part of a small org, once a month may be a bit unrealistic. Nonetheless, take time to say thanks. Gratitude is gratifying.
Do an audit of a competitive feature or service. Keep it brief, and focus on what that competitor is doing well, or better. Partner with a peer—perhaps someone from Product or Engineering, or both. Suggest how your org might respond. Share that presentation at an appropriate time and place and, if it makes sense, offer to work on a response to the competitive threat.
Read a business book. I know…zzzzzzz. Look, as a designer you don’t need an MBA, but at the very least you should understand the business mechanics that affect your org, if not the world writ large. Being ignorant of such things is like a sailor knowing everything about rigging and rudders, and nothing about the sea itself.
Next, read a book about psychology, neuroscience, sociology, or a related topic. Then, figure out how what you read might apply to the work you or your team is doing. Share what you learn with your peers. Better yet, start a small book club, but with a twist: each of you reads a different book, then shares what you’ve learned with one another.
Offer your guidance to a more junior design colleague, whether within your org or not. Set up a standing meeting once a month to answer their questions, and generally be a sounding board for their fears and insecurities. Even if you’re relatively new to the profession yourself, there’s always someone who’s newer. The questions you’re asked will cause you to reflect on your own experiences and insights in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. You’ll discover you know a lot more than you might think, all while setting yourself up to be a design leader yourself someday (if you’re not already).
Make a (short) list of things you’d like to improve about yourself, professionally speaking. These might be hard or soft skills, or a combination. Stack them in order of importance, and start with the item at the top of the list. Consider whether you know someone who’s an expert at this thing, and ask them if they’d be willing to help you. For example, a few years ago it became apparent to me that my intensity, my passion, was also sometimes my undoing. Realizing I need needed to learn to chill a bit, I thought about a colleague who always managed to stay calm under pressure and asked if she’d be willing to give me some guidance. She was flattered to be asked, and I was grateful for her insights. We’re often afraid to ask for help, even as we help others, even as others are more than happy to help us.
Copy a design. No, seriously, I mean outright copy a design. Poster, animation, user interface—it doesn’t matter. Don’t try to improve upon it, just find a design you think is pretty great, and copy it, pixel for pixel. Don’t worry about what you’re learning from the experience. Instead, as you copy, ask yourself why you think the original designer(s) made the decisions they did. Try to get inside their head, if possible. It’s a weirdly liberating and enlightening experience; you’re not on the hook for a single original thought, yet you’re exercising a kind of design muscle, imbuing it with a kind of thought memory that might come in handy when you’re working on your next real project.