Four Themes for Successful Junior Designers
Late last year I launched my own design studio, called Design Equation. This studio has a different format and approach than most, as it was designed to address two chronic issues I’d seen in my 15 years as a UX designer, design educator, mentor and manager.
The first issue is the high cost of professional design services, which often puts quality design out of reach for companies such as nonprofits and early stage startups. The second issue is the ongoing chicken-and-egg problem of how junior designers get the work experience they need to get a job.
My studio incorporates solutions to both these issues with our model: Design Equation identifies promising junior designers and provides mentorship on short, intense design projects created in partnership with clients. The result is lower cost, high quality design services for companies traditionally without access to great design, and real-world experience and mentorship for the designers. I also endeavor to place these designers in full-time positions elsewhere after they’ve gone through my program.
Now, with 11 completed projects and 16 junior designer “graduates” in the rearview mirror, a number of patterns have emerged, both as markers for success and also red flags that indicate a designer would be hard to recommend, and therefore difficult to place. These emergent themes do not center on hard skills, on mastery of specific tools or processes, or even “natural talent.” It is my core belief that successful UX designers exhibit certain traits that lead to talent and design aptitude, not the other way around.
Drive counts for so much. I’ve sourced most of my designers from the General Assembly UX Immersive program, both because I taught there and know the curriculum, but also because these designers tend to be mid-life career changers and therefore already demonstrate drive. Many of them have taken a risky detour in their careers, setting aside the familiar for something unknown and a future that’s far from guaranteed. Drive is what propelled them to take on the risk and what will contribute to their success.
Drive is a raw hunger in the junior designers I recruit: hunger to explore a new industry, to extract every drop of value from their schooling and mentors, to understand the employment landscape and to land a job, to strive for growth and accomplishment as a designer. When a designer has drive my job as a mentor is easier because their motivation comes from within. They are curious. They are knowledge seekers. And most importantly of all, they have a growth mindset and a proactive approach to learning and growth.
Passion is drive’s fraternal twin. It focuses the sometimes uncontrolled energy of drive on a deep interest of design. I love to watch the sparks of passion grow in new designers as they discover the beautiful complexity and power in what we do. It feels life-changing and it is.
Strong work ethic is an obvious tick in the “pro” column for any employer. Sure, we all want to hire hard workers, but ethic in this context is much more. Ethic is caring deeply about the work that you create and understanding that work is a reflection on you. This shouldn’t encourage preciousness: design is a team sport and designers have to be open to feedback, collaboration and compromise. But there’s room and need for personal investment in what we as designers create.
Ethic is about a commitment to quality and making the work the best it can be. Junior designers often don’t have exposure to a wide variety of work, nor have they developed a critical eye to discern the difference between good and great work. I love to see designers who learn from others in this regard, exploring new processes and alternate approaches with the goal of developing their eye and improving the quality of their work.
In the context of a consultancy, I also break down quality as great work within time constraints. I remember being a new designer and how very sloooooow I was. Molasses in February slow. But speed is a great attribute to foster, especially in junior designers, because the faster work is produced the more time there is to evaluate it and iterate further.
Some keys to developing speed:
- Work loosely
Sketch ideas first before going digital and always veer toward the lowest fidelity that’s appropriate for the stage you’re in.
- Strategy → Detail
Many junior designers have trouble differentiating when it’s time to design at a high level (strategies, workflows) and when it’s time to pay attention to details (specific interface elements, agonizing about button labels). Recognize the level, and don’t get lost in details before it’s necessary.
- Know when to stop
We all wish we had more time. For everything. Set time limits on all of your activities and then stick to that schedule. I cherish your perfectionism but we simply don’t have time for it!
Respect has many facets: self respect, respect for peers and teammates, respect for the client, and respect for your “professional elders” (whether or not they’re actually older than you). Respect in all of these forms means recognizing the contributions of others and appreciating their value. It may seem obvious to recognize the wisdom and perspective of more experienced team members or mentors. Quite simply, it is not practiced enough. When senior people offer help or guidance it is usually not offered lightly. Take advantage of it! But also recognize that peers, less experienced designers, and non-designers are worth listening to and often have surprisingly good insights.
Conversely, designers who don’t value the contributions of team members, or who don’t show clients due respect (even in private conversations when the client isn’t present) are exhibiting dangerous red flags to me. Lack of respect shuts down collaboration and avenues to great work.
One of the clearest manifestations of respect is a positive attitude. I’m not suggesting that all employees need to float around their place of work with a smile continually plastered on their face, but a positive attitude indicates an openness to ideas and possibilities, to differences in style and approach, and to alternate ways to thinking about a problem. Positive, open and respectful people are a pleasure to work with and highly desired in the workplace.
And last, but not least…
When I taught at General Assembly I was surprised to discover what a big role fear played in the lives of the students and therefore in my management and guidance of the classroom. It took me a while to recognize and to understand exactly what was going on, but in retrospect it’s probably obvious. Students in the UX Immersive program have taken a big gamble: most have walked away from another job to spend a large sum of money on an industry they hope they will find satisfying, with no real guarantee of immediate employment on the other side. The stakes are very high for most students. What’s more, every student has their moments of doubt, wondering whether they really have what it takes to be a good UX designer. They question whether they’re smart enough, creative enough, driven or talented enough to do great work.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret: that fear never goes away.
As you level up to a new stage of competency, there is always another mountain in the distance, and accompanying self doubt about your ability to climb it. Even accomplished senior practitioners suffer from imposter syndrome, compare themselves unfavorably to their peers, wallow in doubt, and even commit garden variety acts of self-sabotage like avoidance and procrastination.
The good news is that, if the fear never goes away, now is as good a time as any to understand it and learn to work through it. When I see fear rearing its head in the classroom or the studio, I’m quick to call it out because it can grind everything to a halt. Let your fear take over and it will shut you down.
Here are some of my strategies for dealing with fear:
- Recognize and name it
There is great power in self understanding. Sometimes just acknowledging a feeling opens up opportunities for dealing with it.
- Be vulnerable & take risks
When most of us feel fearful we hide and prefer to play it safe. After all, it’s daunting to take the ideas in your head and put them on display for others to judge. But as designers, we have to take risks as an everyday part of our profession. We must get comfortable with ambiguity and embrace openness and vulnerability. Take a deep breath and lean into it.
- Be kind to yourself
Negative self-talk is common, but it can shut you down and prevent your ideas from even making it out of your head. Learn to talk back. It’s rare that someone judges us as harshly as we judge ourselves.
This is a great compensation strategy while you’re working on the above. If I feel insecure about the quality I’m able to produce, I go for quantity. Sometimes you need to get all the bad ideas out to make way for the good ones. And the more times you go to bat the more chances you have to hit a home run.
In closing, all of these themes are complementary. None stand alone. Having drive without respect means a designer gets things done but is a jerk to work with. Or a designer might possess the trifecta of drive, ethic and respect, but unchecked fear can wipe out all of those positives.
By all means, do your best to master the hard skills. Read design books, master tools, experiment with processes, learn techniques and methods anywhere you can. But also recognize that your greatest assets (and the greatest assets to your employer) can be the human skills and the open, engaged mindset you bring to your work.
Danielle Malik is owner and mentor at Design Equation, the spark of which fired while teaching at General Assembly. Before that, she was a Product Design Manager at Facebook in the Commerce group, and also led the UX team at the fabulous but now sadly closed Hot Studio, a design consultancy in San Francisco.
Danielle is chronically active in the UX community, planning and organizing professional events and conferences. She founded the IxDA San Francisco chapter in 2008 (which today boasts over 4000 members), and currently sits on the Board of Directors for IxDA. Follow her on Twitter @danimalik.