DESIGN WAS so much easier before I had clients. I assigned myself projects with no requirements, no schedule, no budget, no constraints. By most definitions, what I did wasn’t even design—except that it ended up creating new things, some of which still exist on the web. Soon I had requirements, schedules, and constraints, but most of those were self-imposed: for instance, I designed the first A List Apart, published a fresh issue every week, and created title illustrations for every article. This was design, but self-directed. I found it easy and natural and it never felt like work at all.
But then a curious thing happened: I began to get clients. And the more clients I got, and the more complex and sophisticated the projects became, the harder design became for me. I wish I could say I approach design with fearless joy, but the truth is, the longer I do it, the harder and more unnatural it becomes. Starting new projects is easy when you have almost no clue what you’re doing—as easy as playing is for a child. With experience comes knowledge of all the depth and skill you lack. You know how great some design can sometimes be, and how unlikely you are to attain anything resembling greatness on any given project. The very idea of beginning terrifies you.
You work past that, because you’re a professional, but the ease is gone. Maybe it’s just me.
And it isn’t just design. Writing comes naturally to me when I’m expressing myself on my own site, with no outside assignment and no deadline except my own sense of urgency about an idea. It’s easy when I’m crafting a brief text message or tweet. Or a letter to a friend.
But give me a writing assignment and a deadline, and I’m stuck. Paralysis, avoidance, a dissatisfaction with myself and the assignment—all the usual hobgoblins spring immediately to life. I fulfill my assignments, because I’m a professional. Sometimes, once I’m far enough past the initial internal pleading, denial, and bargaining, and have put in the first dull miserable hours of setting one word in front of another like a soldier on a long march through waist-high, rain-drenched mud—sometimes at that dreary midpoint, everything unblocks, and I feel pleasure and clarity as flow returns. That’s what writers on assignment fight for—to reach clarity and naturalness after slogging through the hateful murk.
I also play music, and I’m good at it as long as I’m sitting in a corner at an instrument or console, making stuff up for my own pleasure. But create a commercial music product? Not so much. I once had a small recording studio. I got rid of it. Too much pressure.
You get it.
In my heart I remain an amateur. The spirit of play is where my gifts lie. After 30 years in business I can do the other thing—I can fight through the loneliness to make good product on demand. That is, after all, how I feed my family, and there are many far worse ways to earn a dollar. But it’s never easy. It’s never The Joy.
You got this.
I’M LEARNING new tech and it’s hard. Maybe you’re in the same boat.
Through the rosy lens of memory, learning HTML and Photoshop back in the day was a breeze.
It wasn’t, really. And CSS, when it came along in 1996, was even tougher to grasp—in part because it was mostly theoretical, due to poor support in some browsers and no support at all in others; in part because the design model in early CSS wasn’t conceived by designers.
But my memory of learning these tools in 1995 and 1996 is pain-free because it’s an old pain, forgotten because of time passing and even more because the pleasure of achievements gained by acquired knowledge masks the pain of acquisition. (See also: learning to read, learning to ride a bicycle.)
Beyond all that, my old learning’s pain-free in hindsight because I view it through the filter of nostalgia for a younger, simpler me in a simpler time. I was faster, sexier, ached less. Maybe you feel that way sometimes.
Most of all, I falsely remember it being easy to learn HTML, CSS, and Photoshop because I wanted to learn those things. I was doing it for me, not for a job, and certainly not to keep up.
I was a pioneer—we all were, back then. I was passionate about the possibilities of the web and eager to contribute.
Do you dream in color?
That first year of learning web design, I often, quite literally, dreamed in four-color GIFs. I got near-physical pleasure from reducing file sizes. I subscribed to every web design mailing list out there, and even started one of my own.
Remember mailing lists? I don’t mean sponsored, monetized newsletters with images and tortuous HTML. I mean stuff you read in Lynx.
When I shared what I was learning, by writing about it—when I learned what I was learning by teaching it—I felt euphoric. We were at the dawn of a new kind of information age: one that came from the people, and to which anyone could contribute merely by learning a few simple HTML elements. It was going to be great. And democratic. And empowering. Our tech would uplift the whole suffering world.
With every new discovery I made and shared, I felt a sense of mastery and control, and a tingling certainty that I was physically contributing to a better world of the near-future. A world forged in the best tech ever: simple, human-readable HTML.
Design is supposed to fix the world, not break it. Yet some of us, possibly even most of us, work on products and at companies we feel conflicted about.
Design is supposed to value simplicity. And yet here many of us are, struggling to learn new tech, and not feeling it.
But enough about the universe; let’s talk about me.
I’m learning new tech and it’s hard.
I work at a company that makes it easy to use a popular open-source publishing platform. Making things easy for customers is what design’s about. It’s also, always, hard work. And it’s supposed to be. The harder designers work behind the scenes, the easier the experience is supposed to get for the customer.
I have a confession to make: I love hard, mental, strategic design work. I love going cross-eyed envisioning customer journey options small and large. I love it like I love good typography and icons and layout, and I’m way better at it than I ever was at those things. I love it like I love color schemes, and, again—I’m better at it than I was at those.
And, stop me if you’ve heard this one, the more strategic I gets, the further from the code I feels.
Learning new code and tools
I’m not on a product team—I do client-facing design on a special projects team inside our product company—but every designer at the company should understand our products on a deep level, and every designer at the company, whether officially working on product or not, should be able to help make the products better for the customer.
For team-building and other reasons, every designer at our company who can do so is flying to a desert resort next month for a meet-up. And at that meet-up, each of us will fix at least one thing that’s wrong with one of our products. And when I say fix it, I don’t mean file a bug report as a GitHub issue. I mean fix it.
To be ready for that, I’m learning code and tools I probably should have learned a few years ago, but, as a rich man says of his servants, I always had people for that.
New to my work day, before and after internal and client meetings, I slog away trying to master command line interfaces, GitHub workflow, WordPress Calypso, Gutenberg, and React. I’ll need facility in these areas to do a live product fix at next month’s meetup.
Getting the hang of this tech will empower me to fix broken designs and create good ones. That excites me. But learning new things is hard—and GitHub, Terminal, Calypso, Gutenberg and React do not come nearly as naturally to me as HTML, CSS, and Photoshop did 25 years ago (or so I remember).
Age. It’s not just a number.
We’ve all heard that the body replaces itself every seven years. Which means I’m not just a different person mentally, emotionally, and spiritually since I first learned web design 25 years ago; I’m also physically an entirely different person, inhabiting a body that’s been rebuilt, cell by cell, more than three times. (The actual science is more granular than the seven-year meme, but go with me, here.)
At my age, change comes harder than it used to. Guess what? That means I need to change, not just to do my job; I need to change to stay young. (No, that’s not science, but yes, it works.) When it’s hard to move, you need to start exercising, even if starting is hard. When you’re trapped in a dead-end relationship, it’s time to say goodbye, even though breaking up is sad and scary and hard as hell. And if you work in tech and find yourself thinking your past learning gets you off the hook from having to learn new things, you need to think again.
Change. Try it, you’ll like it.
I’m lucky. I work in a supportive place. When I get stuck, a dozen people offer to help. (If where you work isn’t like this, consider working with us.)
Learning new things is hard, and it gets harder if you’re rusty at it, but it gets easier if you keep at it. Or so I tell myself, and my friends tell me.
Maybe you’re in the same position. Maybe you’ve even wasted time and energy on mental ju-jitsu like this: “I believe in semantic, accessible HTML. Therefore I don’t need to learn React.” If that’s you, and it was me, review your thinking. There is no therefore. You can have both things.
You can do this, because I can, and I’m more stubborn and more full of myself than you ever were.
So to my old-school sisters and brothers in HTML. If you’re struggling to learn new things today so you can do your job better tomorrow, I’m going to tell you what a friend told me this morning:
TEACHING is a great way to find out what you know, and to connect with other human beings around a shared passion. It’s an energy exchange as well as an information one, and the energy and information flow both ways.
I’ve been a faculty member in the MFA in Interaction Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts since my colleague Liz Danzico cofounded the program with Steven Heller in 2009. As with all programs and departments at School of Visual Arts, the MFA IXDprogram is run by a faculty of busy, working professionals who teach one three-hour class per week, one semester per year.It’s the kind of gig that doesn’t interfere with your full-time job, and even makes you better at it.
(Fun facts: In 1988, I moved back to New York, the city of my birth, specifically so my then-girlfriend could study computer graphics at SVA; the highlight of my advertising career, which preceded my ascension into web and UX design, was spent working for top SVA advertising instructor Sal DeVito; and I subsequently enjoyed a long romantic relationship with an artist who’d moved to New York to study painting at SVA. So you could say that my eventuallyteaching at the place was overdetermined. When Liz told me of her new program and invited me to teach in it, it was as if half the prior events in my life had been whispers from the future. But I digress.)
Helping students have better careers
Since the program began, I’ve taught a class called “Selling Design,” which helps students completing their Masters thesisdecide what kind of work they’d like to do when they leave with their MFA, a few months after the class begins. There are so many opportunities now for people who design experiences, digital or otherwise. What should they do? Where will they be happiest? Inside a big company or a small one? A product company or an agency/studio? Should they start their own business?
And there are so many kinds of workplaces. In some, it’s your work that matters most. In others, it’s politics. How can you tell the difference before taking a job? We illuminate the right questions to ask and the clues in a student’s own personality that can lead to a great career or a blocked one.
The main teaching method is discursive: I invite designers who’ve had interesting and varied careers to come into the studio and have a conversation in front of the class. Mainly I ask questions and the guest speaker answers; then the class asks questions. Over time the speakers’ experiences and the takeaways I synthesize from them for the class create a picture of everything from how to tell if someone’s lying to you in a job interview to the signs that you’ve come to the right place.
A blaze of glory
This Thursday, May 2nd, at 10:00 AM, I teach my last class of the year, and I’m thrilled that my guest speaker will be Alexis Lloyd, Head of Design Innovation at Automattic, and previously Chief Design Officer at Axios, and Creative Director of The New York Times R&D Lab. In my initial months at Automattic, I’ve reached out to Alexis many times for help and insight, and she’s always generous, patient, and illuminating. It will be an honor and a pleasure to end my teaching year in what will surely be a great conversation with this experienced design leader.
For more about the MFA IXD program at School of Visual Arts, follow @svaixd on Twitter and visit https://interactiondesign.sva.edu/ . And for those who don’t yet know Alexis, here are some points of reference:
Every once in a while, life gifts you with a genuine moment. “>Here’s my friend designer/author Justin Dauer and his newborn, exchanging important information during, of all things, a business conference call. (By the way, Justin is now hard at work on the second edition of his book, Cultivating a Creative Culture, which I recommend for anyone leading a team: www.the-culturebook.com/.)
For your viewing pleasure…
We’re standing at the threshold of an entirely new era in digital design—one in which, rather than hacking layouts together, we can actually describe layouts directly. The benefits will touch everything from prototyping to custom art direction to responsive design. In this visionary talk, rooted in years of practical experience, Jen Simmons shows you how to understand what’s different, learn to think through multiple stages of flexibility, and let go of pixel constraints forever.
Over the decades I’ve used computers, my drawing skill has all but vanished—along with my ability to do calligraphy or even write legibly. Which is why I’ve started forcing myself to sketch again every day. Practice is the best form of hope.
A beginning consultant brings skills, an experienced consultant brings value.
A beginning consultant brings skills, an experienced consultant brings value.
Early in a good career, you establish that you write the best code on your team, have the deftest touch in UI design, produce more good work more quickly than others.
You’re the person who resolves disputes about which typeface was used on an old poster. Or who knows more frameworks, has used more tools. Or who can fix the server when everyone else around you is panicking. Or all the above.
God is in the details. You sweat them.
You are incredibly skilled and you work to stay that way. You read design books and blog posts when your friends are out drinking or home watching TV. You keep a list of things to fix on your company’s website, and you make the changes whether anyone instructs you to or not.
Often, you make a site more accessible, or more performant, or easier to understand not only without being asked, but without being thanked or acknowledged. You do good in secret. You quietly make things better. You inspire good colleagues to learn more and work harder. Lazy or less talented colleagues secretly hate you. You’re the tops. You got mad skillz.
But the organization doesn’t treat you like the incredibly motivated, supremely talented, highly intelligent, deeply passionate professional you are.
The organization rewards something different. The organization looks for leadership, not among the most skilled, but among the most strategic.
The tragedy of great designers and developers
The tragedy of great designers and developers is when they get promoted to positions of leadership where they can no longer design or develop. And the other tragedy is when they don’t.
You can stay an ace coder, a design whiz, a brilliant copywriter well into your 40s and remain a valuable, employable team member. You will not go hungry. You will not be without work.
(By your 50s, finding jobs becomes tougher no matter how brilliant and experienced you may be, due to capitalism’s preference for hiring younger people and paying them less, but the multidimensional, interlocking problems of agism and economic injustice exceed the scope of this little commentary. Typically the solution to prematurely aging out of the market, even though you have much to contribute, is to go off on your own—hence the plethora of consultants in their late 40s. But here again, merely having skills will not be enough.)
To survive as an independent consultant at any age, and to remain meaningfully employable in digital design, you must bring something different to the table. You must bring value.
You must be able to demonstrate, in every interaction with management, how your thinking will help the organization recruit new members, appeal to a new demographic, better assist its customers, increase its earnings.
Consulting in a nutshell
As a professional with skills, you are a rock star to other designers and coders.
As a professional who brings value, you are a star to decision makers.
Both paths are valid—and, truthfully, a great designer, writer, or coder adds incredible value to everything she touches. But the value she adds may not be one management deeply understands. Just as developers understand development, managers understand management.
If you can speak that language—if you can translate the precocious gifts of your early, skills-based career into a seasoned argot of commerce—you can keep working, keep feeding yourself and your family, keep contributing meaningfully to society and your profession.
2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.
I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.
Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)
Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.
Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.
In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.
As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts one, two, three, or four, have a look back.
Speaking Most Clearly When Not Speaking At All
Writing brain and speaking brain verbalize differently for me, I have found. I’m considered a passable conference speaker, and, from friendly conversations to client meetings, I’m rarely at a loss for words. But the ideas I’m able to articulate with my mouth are nothing, absolutely nothing, to those I can sometimes share while writing.
In writing I have clarity of vision and authority of tone that I almost completely lack when speaking with more than one person at a time. This is why I often find meetings stressful and frustrating.
Now, meetings are essential to design and business. And they’re great for listening and learning. But when I have a strong point of view to put across, or when am trying to align folks around an important rallying point, conversation with more than one person just doesn’t cut it for me.
The more of my businesses and projects I can wrap around written communication, the more optimistic I am that those businesses and projects will grow in meaning, deepening their connection to people and serving them better and better. And the more the business of running a business relies on person-to-person talk, the tougher it gets for me to be sure things are progressing toward clear and meaningful goals.
I sense that probably many designers feel this way.
Oddly, I probably don’t come across as one of these designers, because I do okay in a meeting. I’m not the cliched tongue-tied designer in the corner. My relative articulateness as a designer has been a cornerstone of my success, such as it is. In meetings I may even speak too much. Not from lack of interest in what others have to say, but out of fear that an idea not expressed will be lost. This anxiety that drives me to verbalize probably makes me appear confident. Maybe even over-confident.
But my seeming ease in meetings is nothing to the comfort, clarity, and articulateness I feel when alone at a keyboard.
I speak for myself now. This is just me. This is not a law of design or business. Not a rule. Not a lesson. For some folks—including some of my smartest and most productive collaborators—the hack of emitting sounds through flapping jaws is how the best ideas are birthed. And more power to them.
Learning to be okay with their process is part of my challenge as a worker and person. It’s a challenge because it’s a surrender of control as well as confidence. We are all here to share something. In writing, I know what I must say and how to say it. In a room, I’m a person struggling to focus, my monkey mind sabotaging me as it tries to claw its way out of the room.
I would not have figured this out about myself if I didn’t have a gifted child who is also ADHD and dyslexic, calling my attention to how completely differently different individuals can process written and spoken English, and making me realize that, like my daughter’s, my brain is also more comfortable in some verbal environments than others.
I acknowledge that part of what makes written communication work for me is the solitude. Perhaps I’m more narcissistic than I hope. Or maybe it’s just that silence is the place where I can hear whatever it is that I’m meant to share.
Job Hunting For Web Designers
Stagnation is fine for some jobs—when I was a dishwasher at The Earth Kitchen vegetarian restaurant, I enjoyed shutting off my brain and focusing on the rhythmic scrubbing of burnt pans, the slosh and swirl of peas and carrots in a soapy drain—but professionals, particularly web professionals, are either learning and growing or, like the love between Annie Hall and Alvy Singer, becoming a dead shark. If you’ve stopped learning on the job, it’s past time to look around.
Forget Air Hockey, Zen Gardens, and sleep pods: a true “dream” company invests in its people—fostering a workplace that supports dialogue, collaboration, and professional development. From onboarding new hires to ongoing engagement, Justin Dauer shares starting points for a healthy office dynamic and confident, happy employees. ☛
Every product has a personality—is yours by design? Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek shows you how Weather Underground solved its personality problems by creating a design persona, and teaches you collaborative methods for starting a personality adjustment in your company. ☛
The Arc of a Design Career: Khoi Vinh on The Big Web Show № 128
KHOI VINH IS my guest in Episode № 128 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”).