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.
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.
I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)
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.
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.
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.
THERE’S GREAT reading for people who make websites in Issue No. 421 of A List Apart:
by Justin Dauer
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. ☛
by Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek
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. ☛
KHOI VINH IS my guest in Episode № 128 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”).
Khoi is a web and graphic designer, blogger, and former design director for The New York Times, where he worked from January 2006 until July 2010. Prior to that, Khoi co-founded and was design director for Behavior, a New York digital design studio. He is the author of How They Got There: Interviews With Digital Designers About Their Careers (coming in 2015) and Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design (New Riders, 2010), and was a leading proponent of bringing grid-based graphic design principles to web design in the mid-2000s. In 2011, Fast Company named him one of “The 50 Most Influential Designers in America.”
☛ Listen to Episode № 128 of The Big Web Show.
Sponsored by DreamHost.
IN EPISODE № 127 of The Big Web Show, Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering and I discuss the goals and workings of Center Centre, a new school Jared cofounded with Dr Leslie Jensen Inman to create the next generation of industry-ready UX designers. Topics include “teaching students to learn,” what schools can and can’t do, working with partner companies, “Project Insanity,” and designing a program to make students industry-ready.
WEBSITES & URLS MENTIONED
UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”—a feature conceived and designed by a group to whom nothing terrible has happened yet. A brilliant upper-middle-class student at an elite university conceived Facebook, and college students, as everyone knows, were its founding user group. The company hires recent graduates of expensive and exclusive design programs and pays them several times the going rate to brainstorm and execute exciting new features.
I’m not saying that these brilliant young designers are heartless, or that individuals among them haven’t personally experienced tragedy—that would be mathematically impossible. I have taught some of these designers, and worked with others. Those I’ve known are wonderful people who want to make a difference in the world. And in theory (and sometimes in practice) a platform like Facebook lets them do that.1
But when you put together teams of largely homogenous people of the same class and background, and pay them a lot of money, and when most of those people are under 30, it stands to reason that when someone in the room says, “Let’s do ‘your year in review, and front-load it with visuals,’” most folks in the room will imagine photos of skiing trips, parties, and awards shows—not photos of dead spouses, parents, and children.
So it comes back to this. When we talk about the need for diversity in tech, we’re not doing it because we like quota systems. Diverse backgrounds produce differing points of view. And those differences are needed if we are to put the flowering of internet genius to use actually helping humanity with its many terrifying and seemingly intractable problems.
If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.
1 Of course, not all my former students and employees work at Facebook; most don’t. But those who have gone there had other, equally lucrative options; they took the job to make Facebook, and maybe the world, a little better.
MIKE MONTEIRO is a man on a mission. He wants to improve design by fixing the core of it, which is the relationship between designer and client. Too many of us fear our clients—the people whose money keeps our lights on, and who hire us to solve business problems they can’t solve for themselves. And too many clients are even more frustrated and puzzled by their designers than the designers are by the clients.
It’s the designer’s job to fix this, which is why Mike first wrote Design Is A Job, and spent two years taking the message into conference halls and meeting rooms from New Zealand to New York.
I wish every designer could read this book. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine—many of whom I consider far better designers than I am—struggle every day with terrible anxieties over how a client will react to their work. And the problem isn’t limited to web and interaction designers. Anybody who designs anything burns cycles in fear and acrimony. I too waste hours worrying about the client’s reaction—but a dip into Mike’s first book relaxes me like a warm milk bath, and reminds me that collaboration and persuasion are the essence of my craft and well within my power to execute.
If the designer’s side of things were the only part of the problem Mike had addressed, it would be enough. But there is more:
- Next Mike will help clients understand what they should expect from a designer and learn how to hire one they can work with. How he will do that is still a secret—although folks attending An Event Apart San Francisco this week will get a clue.
- Design education is the third leg of the chair, and once he has spread his message to clients, Mike intends to fix that or die trying. As Mike sees it (and I agree) too many design programs turn out students who can defend their work in an academic critique session among their peers, but have no idea how to talk to clients and no comprehension of their problems. We are creating a generation of skilled and talented but only semi-employable designers—designers who, unless they have the luck to learn what their expensive education didn’t teach them, will have miserably frustrating careers and turn out sub-par work that doesn’t solve their clients’ problems.
We web and interaction designers are always seeking to understand our user, and to solve the user’s problems with empathy and compassion. Perhaps we should start with the user who hires us.