Dear designer

Advice to my younger self

Approx. 16 mins to read

This is the advice that I’d like to have read when I was starting out as a designer. I wouldn’t have agreed with all of it and, for obvious reasons, have not followed all of it myself (and there exists a very strong argument that you shouldn’t either), but at the very least I’d like to have had the opportunity to strongly and publicly disagree with it (this option is open to you).

There exist a great many other things that I could add to this list, but when creating posts like this one I typically write things that come immediately (or at least very easily) to mind, such that I’d give similar advice here to the advice I’d give in person if you (or anyone) were to ask for it.

  1. Discount direct applications
  2. Reach out to lots of people
  3. You don’t need to have a degree
  4. Idols are rarely very helpful

Discount direct applications

Many of you will start applying for jobs by 1: searching job boards like e.g. Indeed, Monster, and LinkedIn, 2: applying for somewhere between 1 and n jobs, 3: expecting to interview for some fraction of those applied for, and 4: expecting some smaller fraction of those you interview with to send you an offer letter. This process takes a lot of time and emotional energy and rarely produces good results.

Job postings get inundated with low-quality applications, where low quality equals something between isn’t quite the right fit and is applying for a senior position having never performed this job or any job like it. For that reason alone it’s barely worth your good application (which likely exists in the ~5% of good applications, if it’s even that high) sitting alongside the ~95% of bad applications.

You might think that existing in the 5% makes your application an obvious diamond in the rough, but factors including but not limited to fatigue place you in an environment that’s not particularly conducive to deep thought and analysis. It shouldn’t be this way, but for better or worse humans will act like humans; both energy and judgement will be affected by working through a stack of profiles.

It’s also true that many of the best jobs do not get posted publicly (or get filled before anyone has the chance), just as many of the best candidates aren’t obviously looking for jobs—which means that the typical method might eventually get you a job, but will rarely get you the kind of job that you actually want. Hiring managers know someone (or know someone who knows someone) and the job gets filled offline.

With the above in mind, you’ll want to think about how you might hear of these opportunities (both now and in the future), and who you might hear about them from. An obvious solution is to know many more people than you currently do, in positions that put them in charge of hiring people like you. If that seems daunting to you, it won’t after you’ve reached out to a substantially large enough number of people.

Whilst this will depend heavily on the job you’re trying to get, find out where those people normally spend their time like e.g. Twitter, LinkedIn, Dribbble, or… email, and send them a short message that offers some idea of who you are, what you’re looking for, and how they can help. You don’t need to wax lyrical about design and your vision for the future, it can really be as simple as:

Hi [hiring manager or team member], I’m a product (or communication, or service) designer looking for my next role. I love [project] you worked on and I’d love to chat about opportunities on the team that I’d be a good fit for. My portfolio: [link]. Are you free for a quick call on Friday?

Assuming you’ve done your research, you have skills that this hiring manager could very well use and you’re looking to discuss how they might put them to use. The worst that’s likely to happen is that you get no response, and the rest is somewhere between there’s no opportunity but let’s keep in touch and you’ve caught me at just the right time, Friday sounds great. Either of these is a good outcome.

There are many other ways that you can find people who might help you, including meet-ups, conferences, hack-days, and (broadly speaking) the internet at large. Do your research, find the right people to reach out to, and send them a short message asking for a chat. The several minutes it might take you to do this a handful of times will lead to far more success than countless hours on job boards.

You don’t have to reach out to the hiring manager, of course. You could reach out to someone one the team (or even someone who used to be on the team) and ask what it’s like to work there. You’ll learn a lot more about the job and the folks you’d be working with than you would from a flashy careers page that’s light on the details and necessarily focused on broader themes, like mission, purpose, and… free food.

Through the very act of being a human that’s reaching out to another, you’ll also be seen as one—and you’ll get the chance to go deeper on areas that are somewhere between difficult and impossible to communicate on a résumé or in a cover letter (which have a non-zero chance of being totally ignored). Many folks will be glad to hear from you and more than willing to chat about the team.

Reach out to lots of people

At risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s a very good idea to reach out to a lot of people. Hiring managers and potential teammates are a fantastically small fraction of people on the internet and of the people you could connect with. In the vast majority of cases you shouldn’t have much of an agenda past you do great work and I think I could learn something from you. Many people will be willing to teach you those things.

That doesn’t mean you should ask for someones time to pick their brain or because they’re internet famous. You have a lot of things to learn from other folks, and if you’re going to ask them to give up some of their finite time to chat with you, it’s the least you can do to spend time exploring their work, crafting good questions, and being very specific about what you’d like to learn and why you’d like to learn it from them.

Something that might not immediately be clear is that you likely have things to share which will help to provide perspective for those people, too. When I speak with junior designers I very regularly leave the conversations thinking about some specific subject in an entirely new way. Many designers further along in their career have forgotten useful lessons, or cut their teeth in different contexts to the one that you exist in.

Whilst you’re unlikely to reach out to folks with a direct request to be their friend, a side-effect of reaching out to many people is that some large fraction of them are likely to become just that. Some of my best friendships have started with speaking to folks about their work. I am consistently flawed by the generosity that people exhibit with regard to their time, knowledge, and emotional energy, amongst other things.

To drive this point home, there are several moments in my career that I would have navigated poorly had it not been for folks offering their time and advice. Earlier in my career, working long hours and completely burned out, I reached out to someone I greatly respected for advice—their suggestion, ultimately, was it’s not going to work, quit your job. Weird advice that had I not taken would be in a significantly worse position today.

Many pieces of advice won’t be quite so drastic, and over the years I’ve received advice from countless folks that whilst taken in isolation produce small changes in approach and perspective, in aggregate amount to a completely different picture of what it means to be a good design leader; what it means to connect folks with others and to celebrate them for the work that they do; what it means to empower others (inside out outside of the design team) and to create new leaders.

Connecting with people creates optionality for the future in wonderful and unexpected ways. Someone you reach out to today might well be a collaborator in the future. They could be a new teammate, manager, or report. They could be a familiar face when you move to a new city. They could be a friend, or a mentor, or a coach. They could be a co-founder, or an investor, or a sounding board. People are amazing, and most of them are on the internet.

Of course, the more folks you reach out to, the more difficult it becomes to be responsive and attentive. You’ll be doing yourself a favour and giving others the respect they deserve if you’re intentional about how you manage this. It could be as simple as a list with names and dates or as complex as a relational database with reminders of when you last spoke and what you spoke about. It’s the opposite of impersonal to record this.

How you reach out to people is up to you, but I recommend keeping it short and specific. It’s often tempting to layer in background, and context, and personal stories, but all of that takes time and energy to parse. Folks have the same 24 hours that you do (and could have many more commitments). Long messages at best get flagged to read later, and the realities of life frequently cause later to extend to infinity.

Finally, remember to be as generous with your time as others are with theirs. There are lots of people on the internet and everyone has something to learn from just about anyone. It’s also a frighteningly small world, and you’ll want to be known as someone is willing to offer as much as you ask for, as opposed to someone who is very comfortable with receiving wisdom but who very rarely offers their own to others.

You probably don’t need a degree

Whilst this isn’t true of every university, most curriculums are wildly outdated compared to the work you’ll do in the industry (in both good and bad ways, depending on your perspective), and academics end up with a beautiful but skewed worldview that they’ll happily bestow onto you. If you want to work in academia, that’s probably great—but if you don’t, you might well leave university ill-prepared for the world of work.

Degrees (relative to the output you might create in any given month, day, or hour on the job) take a long time to acquire and even longer to pay back, and whilst it can be liberating to have the time to go deep on theory and the space to take long, winding routes to conclusions (the good kind, anyway, there are bad versions of this), it’s true that >= 1 year inside a great company can viably teach you what might take >= 4 years in a classroom.

By the end of that time your grade can feel like the most important thing in the world, but if hiring managers are looking at your degree at all, rarely are they paying close attention to the grade you were awarded. I almost missed out on the grade I was hoping for and was completely devastated, but (and I acknowledge that I say this from a place of privilege) I have not thought about it once since, and neither has anyone else.

I don’t say this to challenge the value of academia (and for some folks and roles they could very well be a real requirement)—structured learning and supportive professors can create wonderful environments, and I don’t regret my time at university—but I don’t believe most folks need a degree, and the lack of one is certainly not something I’d hold against a candidate. To be frank, I can’t remember ever having checked if folks have one.

Imagining for a moment that you’re in the midst of earning one right this minute (and to avoid causing you dropping out as a result of a blog post from a stranger on the internet), I do believe there are things worth thinking about to supplement your studies and prepare you for the world outside of university walls—I would believe them, because I did them, but doing so has worked out as well as I could have hoped.

Firstly, many design courses feature somewhere between zero and very little practical guidance on business—both the world of business and your specific role in it. Understanding how businesses work and how money works will put ahead of many others by a mile. Understanding your role inside a business will help you to create impact and to be taken seriously (more on this later). Drop into lectures. Read books and blogs. Listen to podcasts.

Secondly, university assignments usually have very comfortable deadlines. Use this to your advantage: don’t drag your feet, get the assignment done, and spend the rest of your time learning things that you’re not being taught at university. Going into digital product design? Learn about software. Communication design? Learn how to write really, really well. Literally any design? Learn about project management, economics, and law.

Thirdly, take advantage of the fact that many folks and organisations will be especially willing to help students further themselves. Reach out to folks and ask for advice, find out which tools and programs have reduced fees for students (sometimes this reduction reaches zero dollars—sometimes less than zero), figure out which services your university offers to students and take every single offer that seems relevant, schedule permitting.

If you haven’t got a degree but you’re thinking about attending university, I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t. What I will say is: think about all of the options available to you and make sure that it’s a conscious choice, rather than the obvious (or only) choice. Increasingly there are ways to learn more, faster, and with significantly more optionality, and your discount rate on those things should probably be lower.

If you don’t have a degree and either do not want one (or are not in a position to pursue one), and you’re worried that it will damage your prospects, I can say with some reasonable level of confidence that your worries are unfounded. Grades live on résumés, and if you’re following the advice in the first part of this post, your résumé will be one of the last things people see, not the first. Sell your work to folks who need it, not a score that was assigned to you by someone else.

Idols are rarely very helpful

An easy trap to fall into early-career (but not exclusively) is putting others on a pedestal. Taking inspiration from folks and appreciating their work is fine, but it can become detrimental when it’s used as a measuring stick. They make bad work, too. Everyone makes bad work. You just don’t get to see it. If on the way to something you’re happy with you create hundreds of things you hate, you’re headed in the right direction.

Comparing yourself to others (especially those with much more experience) is a good way to feel bad about yourself. It isn’t a good way to think creatively or to feel adventurous in your work. You’ll likely always think that many folks on the internet make better work than you do. In some cases, you’ll be right. In many, you’ll be wrong. I can say with some confidence that if you published your work for others to see, some number of them would feel envious of your own skills.

When it’s not tempting to compare yourself with those you believe to be more skilled, it’s tempting to emulate them, instead (either through taking a questionable amount of inspiration or by outright copying). This can be a great way to practice your technical craft early on, but it’s not a winning strategy when it comes to publishing your work. The context and constraints applicable to their work is likely to be vastly different to yours. It’s not that copying the work is bad in the sense that you should feel guilt, I just believe that you have it in yourself to explore freely.

On that point, creativity requires divergent thinking. It requires you to get uncomfortable, and to stay uncomfortable. At times, it requires the exact opposite. Putting too much emphasis on the work of others affords neither of those things. There’s plenty better inspiration for design than other design. Read a book, take a walk, watch a movie, cook a new dish, whatever. Those experiences will inspire entirely more novel work than if you spend hours browsing Dribbble.

That said, learning from folks is great. To do this (assuming they’re not prolific and very personal writers) you’ll need to speak with them. In my experience, folks are far less likely to reach out to people they consider to be much better than them. When I’ve heard people wax lyrical about someone and suggested they might reach out, many say “why would that person want to speak to me?”. Precisely because you’re a human that has asked a (hopefully thoughtful) question. Also because folks love speaking about themselves (mostly because they like to give back, sometimes because it just feels good).

You are good at what you do, and getting better every day. Celebrate great work, but don’t allow it to make yours feel lesser by comparison. I can assure you that the maker of that work does not want you to feel that way. All of us have hangups and feel bad about our work—sometimes from time to time, sometimes most days—but the important bit is that we’re all trying, and we’re all learning. Focus on creating good work every day and the rest will come.

May 28, 2020