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.
And then the future happened.
Cut to 25 years later. Web design has become overly and often needlessly complex, and social media’s having a profoundly antisocial affect that designers with good intentions seem powerless to change.
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:
“You got this.”