The harsh reality of being a designer (and how to deal with it)
4 minutes read
Omertà is an Italian word that refers to a code of silence and honour. Synonymous with the Mafia, it places an importance on silence in the face of questioning from outsiders. Omertà doesn’t just exist in the murky criminal underworld. Doping athletes such as the now disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong have also followed such a code, publicly denying any allegations of drug use and ostracising any rider that dares to speak out. Whilst certainly not as dark as the omertà that exists in the criminal and sporting worlds, it feels like a similar code of silence exists in the design community. A code of silence that prevents some home truths about being a designer from becoming public knowledge.
You see when you start out as a designer, you think you’re going to change the world. You’re sure that your designs will be used and will be loved by millions. You’re sure that stakeholders and clients will swoon over your designs, exclaim that you’ve nailed it again and herald you as the next Jony Ive. You’re positive that your designs will improve the lives of all those they touch, and that in the future they will sit pride of place in some celebrated design museum. And then reality hits home.
You spend months working on projects that get cancelled without anything being delivered. You present ideas to clients and stakeholders, only to have them dismissed out of hand. You receive project briefs that leave absolutely no room for creativity. You pitch a user-centred design approach and have it derided as needless ‘gold plating’. You battle with development teams that seem hell bent on turning your designs into Frankenstein’s MVP monster. You clash with product owners who believe that any upfront design is agile heresy. Being a designer is a noble and rewarding occupation, but it can all too often feel like a somewhat futile existence. They don’t tell you that in design courses.
I was recently in a Q&A (questions and answers) session with some design students at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA). The topic of conversation turned to what it’s really like being a designer in industry. I, along with the other experienced designers on the panel started to regale the students with some past tales. Tales of abandoned projects, of absurd client briefs, dysfunctional development teams and savage stakeholders. Whilst these were probably not the sorts of stories they wanted to hear, it’s the sort of stories they needed to hear.
Being a designer can suck when the harsh realities of the real world repeatedly crush your design dreams. Here are some tips for minimising the chances of this happening and for dealing with it if it does.
Don’t get too attached to your work
What’s the big difference between a pet animal, and one that’s being bred for slaughter? Attachment. A farmer will certainly look after their animals, but one thing they won’t do is become too attached to them. You should be the same with your work. You should have animals-to-be-slaughtered projects, not pet projects.
Pick your battles wisely
I’ve written before about how watching the Tour de France can make you a better designer (it really can and is how I justify spending 3 weeks glued to the television every July). If you watch professional cycling, you’ll soon learn that cyclists pick their battles wisely. A climber is never going to win a sprint stage, in the same way that a sprinter is never going to win a mountain stage. Rather than trying to win every race, they will target the ones they have a realistic chance of winning. You should do likewise.
Don’t work in isolation
Want a sure-fire way to be disappointed as a designer? Work in isolation. As I’ve written before design is a team sport and is best played as one. If you work in isolation, outside of the all-important feedback loop you’re only storing up future disappointment. Better to learn sooner than later that a feature isn’t technically feasible, that the client isn’t willing to budge over a design direction, or that users see little value in your design concept.
Sell your work
Like a great artist unveiling their latest masterpiece to universal adulation, you might assume that your amazing design work will speak for itself. It won’t. Think about how are you going to convince teams, stakeholders and clients to buy in to your work. If you don’t put any effort into selling your work, don’t be surprised when you don’t get any buy-in.
Keep the faith
Yes, being a designer can suck sometimes. Yes, it can feel futile when the harsh realities of the real world repeatedly crush your design dreams. But you know what, I still love being a designer and I’m still glad that I took the decision 20 years ago to become one.
As painful, and as futile as being a designer can be, I still believe that we can help make the world a better place. I still have the faith, and I hope that you do too. I want to leave you with this inspiring quote from Mike Monteiro, author of the excellent Design is a job and Ruined by design.
“Not only can a designer change the world, a designer should. This is the best job in the world! Let’s do it right.”Mike Monteiro
- What makes a good UX designer?
- UX design is a team sport and is best played like one
- Some harsh truths for UX Designer (Amy Rogers)