Am I Too Old To Still Be a Designer?
Advice from The Sherwins for September 2017
I’ve been a designer for about 30 years now, and I hate to admit it, but I’m starting to feel old at my company. It seems like there’s always a new designer being hired, and I’m under a lot of pressure to move higher up into management. But so far, being a manager isn’t that great. The younger designers are quick and have a lot of technical skill, so sometimes I feel like it’s hard for me to show that I matter. Any advice, career or otherwise? Is it time for me to start something new?
G in Atlanta
It happened when you were young, that moment when your life’s path became clear. You met that one person, you saw that one brochure, and you knew. This was the way to help people live better, happier lives. You talked to your parents, and maybe it seemed natural to them. Maybe your friends teased you a little when you doodled what your business cards would look like, but you knew it was right. You agonized over college plans, you studied long and hard, you finally met people just like you, you scored that amazing internship, and then one magical day, you got accepted to that prestigious masters program and when you graduated, you cried a little when you crossed the stage to get your diploma. And now, when people ask what you do, you say with pride: “I am a dentist.”
There aren’t many TED talks about being a dentist. There aren’t many inspirational books about the power of healthy teeth, though there should be. And we’re pretty sure that Steve Jobs never turned his considerable intellect towards innovating oral health.
But we all know that there are approximately 2.7 million TED talks about how awesome design is. Being a designer is how you change the world. Design thinking this, power of design that. Everyone’s a designer. Not everyone is a dentist.
We’ve noticed this growing belief that you can read a book or take a class or watch a YouTube video and then you can start doing design like a Real Life Designer. (It should go without saying, but we do not recommend watching YouTube for anything related to dentistry.) But, like dentists, many of us were inspired at a young age to become designers, and we followed that path for years, some of us going all the way to design school for graduate degrees. Design is a hard-fought skill. It requires deep expertise and thoughtfulness, moving seamlessly between theory and practice.
But we’re preaching to the choir, right? You’re fantastic at design, and that’s great, but we don’t sign your paychecks. So you have to find a way to prove your value.
For us, the number one way to prove value is to communicate rigor. We’re here to tell you that most designers don’t know how to do this well. They don’t know how to communicate to other people what they are doing, why it’s important, and how it will impact others. Or, worse, they do—and they think that by telling other people all of their secrets, they won’t be perceived as being as awesome as they really are. (Which is like believing that talking about sex will get you pregnant.)
Design rigor always boils down to these two questions: Why did you make that design decision? And how good are you at communicating the reason why you made that decision to someone else? If you know your developer needs something in a particular way, that’s how you deliver it, because you understand the rationale behind it. And when you need something from the marketing team, you describe what you need, why you need it, and how it benefits the user of your product. When you’re in disagreement, you can point to the reasons why your decision is more appropriate to the task. And if you don’t get what you want, you fold the reasons why into future decisions that you make.
Design’s modern history is tangled up with things like marketing and advertising, where for many years, the eye and the gut were the biggest contributors to success. Slogans sounded good. The copy was snappier than carrots. And those designers looked like wizards. Though, to be honest, those wizards did a lot of production-–hand-setting type, trimming images with X-Acto blades, and doing paste-ups of their layouts with actual paste. But at least there was no chitchat about how anyone could do their job. Designers were designers, and dentists were dentists.
So what changed? The word thinking got tacked onto the word design. And everything went a little sideways. When you’re solving big problems, you need everyone at the table—and having an esoteric process that isn’t inclusive is a sure-fire way of building something that won’t solve that big problem for everyone. In the public eye, design seems to have something for everyone, a set of methods that can be leveraged in any context. There are even classes to help dentists improve their practice through design. At a lot of companies though, designers are still being thought of as production wizards-in-training, while the rest of the world has expanded the definition of design to include almost everything except production.
Or worse, some companies have embraced that expanded definition of design and cut their design staff, because they think anyone can do Design. The relationship between design and thinking is still in flux, still being defined by the people that hold the purse strings. These are trying times for designers, even more so if you’re right out of school. Imagine your young colleague being told in design school that she could change the world… then she discovers that what they actually meant was she would create only wireframes in her brand new job for eight months straight. Imagine her dawning realization that she also hasn’t been taught how to articulate what’s happening to her work or to her career.
Perhaps that’s the only difference between you and the super-talented designer that just walked in the door from school. You have a way of thinking that helps you communicate design rigor, and designers that are newer to their jobs are just beginning to develop that skill. If you can’t communicate your “design thought” alongside your wizardry, then all is for naught.
This is the new directive for designers a decade or two into our careers. Like photography, advances in technology have forever altered our ability to prove ourselves through our handiwork. But these advances have not yet helped us in expressing rigor.
Every decision comes from somewhere. Even aesthetic ones. Within particular audiences, people respond predictably to things like specific colors and typefaces, use of whitespace, distance from button to button, or how notifications are visualized. Some of it comes from our grey matter and bodies (like readability, cognitive science, and a lot of human factors design), while some it is just because people are people. You might not necessarily know why the image of the red shoes led to more purchases than the blue shoes, but if you’ve got even a smidgen of data around preference or trends, your future color decisions will bring that data into play. (By the way, if you haven’t yet, take a few minutes to ask the internet how color trends get picked. Meet us back here and we’ll pour you a good stiff drink.)
Dive deep into your own practice. Keep a notebook by your desk. Write down as much as you see and understand. Anything that you can’t explain, investigate: How did you know to put this element there? To shorten the copy here? When did you learn that a particular principle no longer applied? When you first used a cell phone, how did it change how you thought about communication? When responsive web design popped up, how did you change your style? Challenge and test your assumptions. Compare them to how younger designers are seeing the world. You’ve already had more experience adapting to change than most people you work with. Anyone who was a designer before the internet and mobile has watched the entire world change. Nothing is for certain, and the “ability to change how I think” is really the endorsable skill we want to see on LinkedIn.
<This decision> solves <this problem> for <this audience>, and we know this is true <because of this reason>. Practice this devilishly simple formula, which is so difficult to master that even seasoned designers struggle with it. You will need this skill, no matter what you do next. Your years in the seat have taught you a lot, but the ability to put all of that into words takes time.
Not every employer will recognize this great marriage of design craft and rigorous thought, the true Design Thinking. Not every team will appreciate how you wield your expertise and knowledge. And there’s still going to be some upstart designer who has All The Answers and will consistently ruin your afternoon coffee break.
But even if you find a new company or start your own thing, G, revel in your knowledge. Be generous with your expertise. And don’t feel threatened by people who want to learn how to do what you do. The way that you think and express yourself in the world is unique to you. Just like your teeth.
So honor your past effort and your future adventures. And never confuse your skills as a practitioner with your presence as a human. One may diminish, but the other never will.
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The fine print: September 30, 2017, is an auspicious day. That's when this advice column goes away, and a new one takes its place.
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