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People Don’t Understand Design (and Other Lessons Learned the Hard Way)

I chose to blaze my own trail and took plenty of wrong turns along the way. Learn from my mistakes and save yourself a few steps on your own journey.

They say experience is the best teacher. That’s certainly true, but gaining that experience can sting. It’s a lot less painful when someone shares their experience with you so that you can avoid the hard knocks. Imagine setting out on a long hike, when someone comes out of the woods to let you know where the trail is washed out. Sure, you would have figured it out eventually—but a little proactive advice from someone who has already been there can be invaluable, too.

When I was starting out in my design career, I was lucky to get some great advice from my creative directors and mentors. Other things I had to experience the hard way. Over the years I’ve collected a few observations that I think are worth passing along.

Just like feedback in a usability test, the friction points in your career are the opportunities to improve and grow.

Today I share them with you, grasshopper. Do with them what you will.

1. People See Design as Deliverables

Very few people that you’ll work with really understand what designers do—much less how we do it. It’s not just that they say UX when they mean UI. The underlying design concepts aren’t there. And if they are lucky enough to know what they need, they often lack the vocabulary to explain it to you.

People often equate design to the documents and deliverables it produces. They lack the wider perspective of design as a problem-solving process.

My Advice

Change the context. Your colleagues and stakeholders aren’t dim—they just haven't been given the tools to communicate clearly in your world. So take the conversation to theirs.

Learn enough about their areas of expertise so that you can speak their language and make analogies to their work that will help them understand yours. Their understanding will grow—and so will yours!

2. Nobody Cares About Process Like You Do

As designers and developers, we live and die by process. But most other people really only care about end results. The sad truth is, a lot of them can’t really relate to the process at all. Their eyes will glaze over when you start nerding out about workflows. That can be frustrating, but it doesn’t mean you can’t still build a great process, or eventually help the team to understand its value.

My Advice

Don’t try to argue someone else into caring about process. Sell your ideas on the end results.

Over time, you can advocate for the process that achieved your amazing results and that will build understanding. Soon enough you’ll draw more people to the cause of great process. Until then, be patient.

3. Not Every Day Is Award Winning

Most of us leave design school as wide-eyed dreamers. The world will be ours! The horizons are unlimited. We get that idea because school projects are open ended and the internet makes everyone think that design is pie in the sky and a free beer keg.

The reality is that working designers operate under lots of very real constraints. Stakeholders may force you to do things you don’t want to. Time will run out. Budgets will run short. Real design work is about making compromises and doing the best you can with what you have.

My Advice

Don’t beat yourself up if every day isn’t producing work that looks like the front page of Dribbble. Measure your success on a longer scale. You’re pushing a boulder up a hill most days, but in six months you’ll be a lot further up the hill than when you started.

And yes, your portfolio may include a few underwhelming projects at first, but if you keep at it, it will eventually be full of work you’re really proud of. Stick with it until you are.

4. Designers Are Stereotyped

“I simply can’t work this way, dahhhling!” Earned or not, being a designer comes with a stereotype. We have acquired a rep in some circles as picky, pushy, precious assholes (like Edna Mode from The Incredibles, only less cuddly).

Until the team gets to know you, you may have to carry someone else’s emotional baggage for a while. Just remember, they don’t know you yet, and in the end they want to work well with you.

My Advice

First, don’t be THAT designer. Ever. If you’re not, then just be confident, reasonable, and approachable. Present your perspective clearly, and use research and process to back it up. But don’t be afraid to admit you are wrong or compromise. (Except on one thing... No capes!)

5. Feedback 101 Isn’t a Required Course

Look, no one likes to get their work torn apart, but we’re actually much better at it than most. We’re trained in school to accept critical feedback objectively. But we’re the exception, not the rule. People in other areas of the business aren’t as good at receiving feedback. They weren’t trained to. Sometimes you’ll feel like they can dish it out, but not take it.

My Advice

Suck it up, Buttercup. Feedback on our work is part of the job, even if it feels one-sided. To get your own thoughts across, try using some feedback strategies like I like, I wish. You can also ease into it with phrases such as “have you considered...” or “I’m curious if we could...” with people that struggle the most. A little “Yes, and…” never hurts, either.

6. You Won’t Be Valued If You Don’t Value Yourself

Yes, the customer is always right in the end. But that doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat, either. You have to advocate for yourself. If you aren’t receiving the direction or resources you need, you’ll have to ask or chase them down yourself. You should also be paid fairly for your work! Compensation is murky and nobody likes to talk about it, but avoiding those conversations will just keep you eating ramen far longer than any human should. And it’s okay to set boundaries, too—you aren’t in school anymore and a little planning should help you avoid most all-nighters.

My Advice

Trust and believe in your own abilities and know that your value will only continue to grow. Create an open dialog with others on your team and with your managers or clients about what is expected. Ask for feedback and create opportunities to discuss your strengths and weaknesses rather than waiting for a review to eventually come your way.

At the End of the Day

More than a decade in to my design career, the best advice I can offer is to be true to yourself—understand what matters to you and decide which hills are worth dying on and which are not. You can define your own path through company culture with less consequence than you may think. At the end of the day, people will value you if you value yourself.