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A Different Letter to a Junior Designer

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Editor’s note: Last week, Cennydd Bowles published his “Letter to a Junior Designer.” Today, Andrew Clarke offers a different perspective.

To be honest, I envy you. I envy your energy and your enthusiasm and the fact that for you, design is still new, still exciting. I envy your self-confidence. You know you’ll be a better designer than me. Maybe you already are.

With age comes experience, and there’s no doubt that I have more of it than you—especially experience in balancing the needs of people who use what I design with those who pay for it. That experience gives me an advantage today, but you’ll gain it too, in time.

In the meantime, I’d like to offer three suggestions.

Don’t slow down

You must never forget that it’s ideas that matter most, and that without your idea there would be nothing. You can’t turn a poor idea into a brilliant one by iterating, so don’t make fewer ideas. Make more. Don’t slow down. Speed up.

Your mind is a muscle, just like any other: you need to use it to keep it in top condition. To keep making ideas happen, make more of them, more often. Feed your mind with inspiration wherever you can find it. Exercise it with play. Make idea after idea until making them becomes a reflex.

You don’t always need to think things through

You won’t ever predict the path your ideas will take. You can’t know the restrictions they’ll face nor the limitations that will be put on them. My advice to you is not to try. Too often I see brilliant ideas extinguished because people think about practicalities too early. How will this be built? How will someone use it? These are important questions, but at the right time.

Naturally, some ideas will fade, but others will dazzle. So before you pinch out the flickering flame of a new idea, let it burn brightly for a while longer, unhindered by practicalities.

Sell with passion

Selling is frowned upon by a lot of people. It’s true: no one likes to be sold to badly, nor enjoys being interrupted unnecessarily. But being sold to well, by a good salesperson, is an experience that benefits both seller and buyer.

Learning how to sell was one of the best things I did early in my working life. Granted, I sold photographic equipment and not websites, but what I learned has served me immeasurably well. It’s helped me deal with people in a whole host of situations, not least in presenting (read: selling) my design ideas to clients.

Selling ideas should become one of your best skills. It’s a fact of life that it’s not always the best idea or the best execution that wins a pitch or presentation, but the one that’s been sold the best. So learn to sell. Learn to talk about your work so that the person you’re selling to understands your ideas and why they should buy them. Learn to inspire people with your words as well as your work. Make them feel like they’re so much a part of your ideas that they simply must buy from you.

Finally, I hope most of all that you never allow your energy and enthusiasm for design to wane. You’re young, you’re talented: revel in that. This industry has been good to me for many years, and I’m glad that you’re here too, to show an old dog new tricks.


About the Author

Andrew Clarke

Andrew Clarke is an art director and web designer at the UK website design studio Stuff and Nonsense. There he designs websites and applications for clients from around the world. Based in North Wales, Andrew’s also the author of two web design books, Transcending CSS and Hardboiled Web Design, and is well known for his many conference presentations and over 10 years of contributions to the web design industry. Jeffrey Zeldman once called him a “triple talented bastard.” If you know of Jeffrey, you’ll know how happy that made him.

12 Reader Comments

  1. I’ve appreciated both letters. As a younger designer (although I started designing in the late 1990’s in high school before taking a detour and ending back up in design in my late 20’s), I’ve worked with older designers and see the benefits of experience.

    There are things that older, more experienced designers tend to value for good reason: strategy, organization, historical and technical experience, thoughtful processes, reasoning through and solving complex problems, etc. And younger designers tend to shoot from the hip, they tend to be quite intuitive, and move fast and break things. The young often carry with them the seeds of changing tides, while the more experienced bring with them the songs of time-tested experience.

    Of course, those are generalities, and I’ve seen some very innovative thinking from people older than me as well, just as I have seen conservative thinking from younger folks.

    The most passionate young designers want to soak up everything and learn everything. Many of us feel insecure as we do this, as we try to learn and grow with the history of the practice, and to master the tools of the trade, etc.

    What can sometimes be difficult for junior designers is a lack of a strong mentoring relationship between the more experienced and the younger designers. This has to be a relationship of mutual respect, a dynamic give-and-take. We all have a lot to learn in this ever-changing industry.

  2. Both letters where great. Good advice for any designer who is starting (would have been a great read for me 15 years ago).

    But if there is something I would ad is: make mistakes. Take risks and make lots of mistakes. Because when you are starting, those mistakes (terrible for you at the time) are small in the grand scheme of things (that is your professional life). But they will teach you a lot, if you are able to learn from them.

  3. A really insightful repost to the original letter, Andrew. I’m absolutely in agreement that ‘the idea’ is, and should be, the focus; without an idea, we don’t have design! There’s no point in trying to hash out something that just doesn’t have legs.

    I’m still an absolute babe in my career as a designer and, now I’ve had but a taste of what it really is to DESIGN things, I want to be doing this for as long as I can think, hold a pencil, and smash pixels & code around on a screen.

  4. Again, with such good advices on both sides, I think the key to the problem is the balance between the two. Or at least to choose an approach on a per-project basis. Some project will need you to be completely committed, with passion and to do it on the spot / in a rush. Some other project will need you to take your time, to think it through and to slow down to take a good decision. The difficult thing here is to be able to recognize what method is the best for each project.

  5. This is complete bullshit.
    People who know to sell don’t make our world better. They making it worse. If you are good in selling things, the “thing” must not be good. And that is bad. If you are a good sales person, you can sell everything, even bullshit. And that is dangerous. Your idea, your product, your solution should be so good, that it don’t need any presentation or any selling. It has to speak for it self.
    If you are good in selling something, it just means you are not good at anything else.

  6. Change the word or concept of “selling”, to “evangelizing” for the ideas you’re passionate about, it isn’t BS. It’s how you test the validity of your idea when tested by smart people in the room.

  7. I think the point is being missed – communicating how important an idea is, is invaluable for actually generating interest (and possibly getting funding). Good salespeople are good communicators, regardless of whether you dislike that they’re trying to palm you off a vaccuum you don’t want.

    Also, an idea/product/solution that is so good that it doesn’t need selling or presenting. Does this actually exist?

  8. I totally agre with you Matias, I’m 18 years old and I’m a brazilian who has started coding when I was 15 , so it was easy to find out why I’ve make a few things right: because I’ve learned every way to make it wrong.

  9. THIS IS INCREDIBLE… just to let anyone know; who didn’t realize that RIGHT AWAY! I agree with EVERY WORD. I myself worked on a “personal” project for over 5 YEARS before I figured out how I could make any money with it… LOL. 10 years later, after a roller coaster of learning, experimenting, dreaming, and building; IT’S A BUSINESS!! By the way, I NEVER went to school for either BUSINESS nor DESIGN. Don’t give up on great ideas, find ways to MAKE THEM REAL, AND MAKE THEM WORK. Sometimes life/work gets in the way, but progress is progress; and that’s the process that leads to completion.

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