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Advice for new designers

August 1 · Issue #35 · View online
Design Sprint Newsletter
Hey there!

First, two ads for my upcoming design sprint workshops. I’d love to see you there!

Next, a little about what’s going on in my real life. (I’ll get to the advice for new designers after some rambling, trust me. Or just skim to the links.)

My family and I just finished moving back to Seattle after 8 years in San Francisco. When I say “finished moving” you should picture me sitting at my just-plugged-in computer, surrounded by stacks of paper file folders, half-unpacked boxes, and random objects including an electrical outlet faceplate and a pair of binoculars. So, yeah, still a bit of “finishing” to do, but, y'know, I live here now. And despite all the work that remains to settle in, it feels really great to be back.

I grew up about 100 miles north of Seattle, went to college in Seattle, and worked in Seattle for a little over a decade (at Microsoft and Google) before going to California in 2011 to be at Google HQ and try to kickstart this wacky new “design sprint” idea. I could go on and on about how great the Bay Area was for my work and for our family (it was), and I could go on and on comparing San Francisco and Seattle, and telling you why we’re moving back—but I won’t bore you.

I will say that I see reminders of my earlier life everywhere I look in Seattle. The University of Washington campus, where I stubbornly majored in painting, while slowly realizing I loved computers more than oils. The bus stops where I used to catch the 545 to Microsoft, and later the 242 or 26 to various Google offices. The coffee shop where I scratched the schedules for the first design sprints in a spiral notebook. I’m in that just-moved honeymoon stage combined with some serious nostalgia. It’s fun.

So while I’m looking back, I thought I’d share some things I wish I’d read and heard when I was in school—not studying human computer interaction, computer science, or business—and in my first few years as a designer, when I felt like I didn’t know what the hell was going on. If you’re just starting your own product design career, I hope you’ll find this stuff useful.

This post by Karen X. Cheng is from 2013 (I’m sure she would’ve recommended Sprint otherwise, haha!) but it’s still super relevant and super useful. I mean, yeah, maybe substitute Sketch/Figma/InVision for Photoshop/Illustrator, but this is an amazing guide, and all the books she mentions are still fantastic six years later.

I recently did a follow-up interview with Braden Kowitz (ex-Gmail design lead/ex-Google Ventures design partner/current startup founder). You might remember my earlier interview from a couple issues back, but in this new interview Braden shares his tricks for working and getting things done with a team at any size company. It’s super cool insight from the best interaction designer I know.

At some point, you’ll need a portfolio to get a job. This post by Sarah Doody is a super smart/useful guide with illustrations and step-by-step instructions for writing a case study. In my opinion, you should build your portfolio around one great case study—here’s my post about that.

Finally, here’s some advice from me to new designers:

You belong here.

I say this because most designers have a secret inferiority complex. I sure do. Maybe you think you didn’t study at the right school, or didn’t study the right thing. Maybe you think your colleagues or the designers at other companies are impossibly smarter than you are. Maybe you aren’t sure you deserve the responsibility of designing products that your teammates will have to build and your customers will have to use—because whatever you’re in the business of designing, there is a lot of human time in your hands, and that can be overwhelming. Maybe you’re just afraid your designs will suck, that they won’t work, that nobody will care. I’ve definitely felt and do feel all of these things. I suspect that the annoyingly arrogant and overconfident designers we sometimes encounter in life are just expressing this feeling of self-doubt in an unfortunate way.

Hey, you know what? Self-doubt can either be your Achilles heel or the engine of great design. See, you’re worried because you care. Well, yeah, designers care. You’re worried because you realize you don’t know the right answer already. Yes, exactly! Design is not about already knowing, it’s about figuring out the right answer.

Great designers have to figure it out every time.

You belong in design not because you already know everything or already have perfect taste or already have mastered technology and psychology and art and language, but because you’re going to be curious and learn and experiment every single time. In a weird way, it’s that worrying thing that means you’re qualified. You’re going to try to understand what technology can do right now and what’s best for people right now. People who already know the answer can’t do that—it requires an open mind.

And y'know what else, self-doubter? It’s not just that you belong. We need you to stay curious. Humanity is busting at the seams with change, and technology is making that change even faster. It is a damn complex world out there and the biggest danger is designers who aren’t curious enough to care about the consequences of their work.

So rename your self-doubt as a beginner’s mind. Don’t get frozen, don’t hide it in posturing. Embrace your uncertainty. And one more thing:

Great designers care.

You’re not a great designer yet. That’s no diss, because you’re just starting. (I mean, hey, I’m only slightly above average at best myself and I’ve been doing this for 20 years.) But you DO care. You’ve got that flame now, so keep it burning.

Now get to it!


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