A List Apart

Ask Dr. Web with Jeffrey Zeldman

The Love You Make

A note from the editors: During the 1990s, “Ask Dr. Web” was a regular part of Zeldman.com—and now Dr. Web is back to answer your career and industry questions. Read on for his advice, learn the story behind the column, and don't forget to submit a question of your own.

In our last installment, we talked about what to do when your work satisfies the client, but doesn’t accurately reflect your abilities, e.g. how do you build a portfolio out of choices you wouldn’t have made? This time out, we’ll discuss choices you can (and should) make for yourself, free of any client-imposed restrictions.

As an employer, how important do you feel open source contributions are in a modern portfolio?
Dip My Toe
In your opinion, what is best way to present your work online today? Sites like Dribbble? or custom portfolio? or something else?
All A-Tizzy
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Dear Dip and Tizzy,

The best thing any web designer or developer can do is learn to write and speak. The heyday of blogging may be over, but that’s no reason not to create a personal site where you share your best ideas (and occasionally, your biggest frustrations) as a professional.

Design and development use different parts of the mind than verbal expression does. Spending day after day in Photoshop or Coda can get you into a wonderfully productive and inspired groove. But growth comes when you step away from that familiar, comforting environment where you already know you shine, and practice articulating ideas, arguments, and rationales about what you do and why.

Daring to speak—unblocking your inner voice—can be scary, but it’s worth it. Only by writing my thoughts and speaking publicly do I actually understand what I’m thinking; only by sharing those verbalized thoughts with others can I begin to see their broader implications. The Web Standards Project would not have existed—and the web would be a very different place—if those of us who co-founded it hadn’t spent almost as much time articulating our ideas about the web as we did creating websites. And the same is true for everyone who works to improve our medium by sharing their ideas today.

By daring to publicly speak and write, you will become better at selling your ideas to tough clients, better at evangelizing methodologies or causes to your peers, better at thinking and therefore at doing, and better at those all-important job interviews. I’m a sucker for design talent, but I’ve never hired anyone, however gifted, if they couldn’t talk, couldn’t argue, couldn’t sell, couldn’t put their passion into words a client could understand.

I’ve also never hired a designer or developer who didn’t have a blog or some equally meaningful and living web presence. I hired Jason Santa Maria in 2004 because of a blog post he wrote, and over a decade later, we still work together on meaningful projects like A Book Apart (the book arm of the magazine you’re now reading). Moreover, I’ve never hired anyone who didn’t have a personal web presence of some kind—be it a blog or something more unexpected. Don’t get me wrong: communities like Dribbble are fantastic for sharing glimpses of your work, learning from others, and building a following. If you’re an illustrator, a Dribbble or Behance page and a personal portfolio will suffice. If you’re an exceptionally gifted illustrator, one whose work leaps off the screen, I might not even need that personal portfolio—Dribbble or Behance will be enough.

But if you design, develop, or project manage websites and applications, or do other UX, strategy, or editorial work for the web, you need a voice—and a blog is a terrific place to start building one. (And once you’re comfortable writing on your blog, start reaching out to industry publications.)

The other thing that really helps you stand apart from your peers is contributing to someone else’s project, or starting your own. If you’re a developer, I should be able to find you on Github; if you’re a designer, start or contribute to a project like Fonts In Use.

You don’t have to believe in karma to know that, in this field at least, the more you put out, the more you get back. Even if you have the misfortune to work for a series of less-than-stellar clients, or at a shop or company that doesn’t promote your best work, you must never let those circumstances define you. As a designer, you are responsible for what you put out into the world. If your job sucks, design something for yourself; if everything you build is hidden behind corporate firewalls, contribute code to an open source project, link to it from a personal site, and write about it on your blog. That’s how others will discover and appreciate you. Rich Ziade’s studio designed million-dollar projects for banking institutions, and I never saw or heard of one of them. (Secrecy comes with that turf.) But I met Rich, and became his friend and fan, after he and his team released Readability, an app dedicated to un-sucking the online reading experience.

Don’t wait for someone to offer you a dream job or a dream project. Shake what your momma gave you: create something, pay it forward.

How do I know this advice is good for your career and our community? A List Apart began as a side-project of mine, back when I was designing less-than-stellar websites for clients I couldn’t sell good work to. And the rest, I believe, you know.

Hope this helps, and see you again soon in a future installment of “Ask Dr Web.”

Have a question about professional development, industry culture, or the state of the web? This is your chance to pick Jeffrey Zeldman’s brain. Send your question to Dr. Web via Twitter (#askdrweb), Facebook, or email.

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