Letter to a Junior Designer

I admit it: you intimidate me. Your work is vivid and imaginative, far superior to my woeful scratchings at a similar age. The things I struggle to learn barely make you sweat. One day, you’ll be a better designer than me.

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But for now, I can cling to my sole advantage, the one thing that makes me more valuable: I get results. I can put a dent in cast-iron CEO arguments. I can spot risks and complications months in advance. In the wager that is design, I usually bet on the right color. People trust me with their stake.

So, if you’ll humor me, maybe I can offer a few suggestions to speed you toward the inevitable.

Slow down#section2

You’re damn talented. But in your eagerness to prove it, you sometimes rush toward a solution. You pluck an idea from the branch and throw it onto the plate before it has time to ripen. Don’t mistake speed for precocity: the world doesn’t need wrong answers in record time.

Perhaps your teachers exalted The Idea as the gem of creative work; taught you The Idea is the hard part. I disagree. Ideas aren’t to be trusted. They need to be wrung dry, ripped apart. We have the rare luxury that our professional diligence often equates to playfulness: to do our job properly, we must disassemble our promising ideas and make them into something better.

The process feels mechanical and awkward initially. In time, the distinction between idea and iteration will blur. Eventually, the two become one.

So go deeper. Squander loose time on expanding your ideas, even if you’re sure they’re perfect or useless. Look closely at decisions you think are trivial. I guarantee you’ll find better solutions around the corner.

Think it through#section3

We’d love to believe design speaks for itself, but a large part of the job is helping others hear its voice. Persuasive rationale—the why to your work—is what turns a great document into a great product.

If you haven’t already, sometime in your career you’ll meet an awkward sonofabitch who wants to know why every pixel is where you put it. You should be able to articulate an answer for that person—yes, for every pixel. What does this line do? Well, it defines. It distinguishes. But why here? Why that color? Why that thickness? “It looks better” won’t suffice. You’ll need a rationale that explains hierarchy, balance, gestalt—in other words, esoteric ways to say “it looks better,” but ways that reassure stakeholders that you understand the foundations of your craft. Similarly, be sure you can explain which alternatives you rejected, and why. (Working this through will also help you see if you have been diligent or if you’ve been clinging to a pet idea.) This might sound political. It is. Politics is just the complex art of navigating teams and people, and the more senior you get, the more time you’ll spend with people.

Temper your passion#section4

Your words matter: be careful not to get carried away. Passion is useful, but you’ll be more effective when you demonstrate the evidence behind your beliefs, rather than the strength of those beliefs. Softer language earns fewer retweets but better results. If you have a hunch, call it a hunch; it shows honesty, and it leaves you headroom to be unequivocal about the things you’re sure of.

Similarly, your approach to your work will change. Right now design is an ache. You see all the brokenness in the world: stupid products, trivial mistakes, bad designs propped up with scribbled corrections. That stupidity never goes away, but in time you learn how to live with it. What matters is your ability to change things. Anyone can complain about the world, but only a good few can fix it.

That fury, that energy, fades with time, until the question becomes one of choosing which battles to arm yourself for, and which to surrender. Often this means gravitating toward the biggest problems. As you progress in the field, your attention may turn from tools and techniques to values and ethics. The history of the industry is instructive: give it proper attention. After all, all our futures shrink with time, until finally the past becomes all we have.

You’ll come to appreciate that it can be better to help others reach the right outcomes themselves than do it yourself. That, of course, is what we call leadership.

Finally, there may come a point when you realize you’re better served by thinking less about design. Work and life should always be partially separate, but there’s no doubt that the experiences you have in your life shape your work too. So please remember to be a broad, wise human being. Travel (thoughtfully) as much as you can. Read literature: a good novel will sometimes teach you more than another design book can. Remind yourself the sea exists. You’ll notice the empathy, sensitivity, cunning, and understanding you develop make your working life better too.

But you’re smart, and of course you realize this is really a letter to the younger me. And, alongside, it’s a lament at my nagging sense of obsolescence; the angst of a few grey hairs and the emerging trends I don’t quite understand. Which is mildly ridiculous at my age—but this is a mildly ridiculous industry. And you’ll inherit it all, in time. Good luck.


57 Reader Comments

  1. Beautiful, very well spoken and I definitely fall for some of the mistakes you refer to; A lot of young people starting their careers in, well many subjects should read this, a lot of the points can be extrapolated despite it being most true of designers!
    Thank you for a wonderful read!

  2. “Temper Your Passion”
    YES. I’m seeing quite a lot of different entries from other designers advocating running yourself into the ground to get a leg up on your career. You know, “work all-nighters & catch up on sleep later”, “when you’re not working your job, you’re working your side project”, “learn to code! (no, HTML & CSS isn’t code. Lots of JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, that kind of thing, otherwise you’re USELESS)”. That kind of stuff. Quite prevalent, completely oblivious to how unhealthy & unsustainable it is. Don’t focus on career at the expense of the beauty of life.

    Great read.

  3. “You’ll come to appreciate that it can be better to help others reach the right outcomes themselves than do it yourself. That, of course, is what we call leadership.”
    —Very well put.

  4. I truly wish I would have taken these perspectives to heart earlier in my career. I doubt this article would have changed my stubborn mind at the time—but it might have clued me in a bit earlier.

    This is the wisdom that while difficult to teach (being learned over time in a real work environment) is sorely missing from design education.

  5. Literally tapping this to my desk… This spoke to me for sure as I am coming from a 5 year role as a freelance and this week took on a position at a Studio which is a completely different world. Really well put, thanks man.

  6. Nice! Great advice to self and the newly arrived. My biggest pitfall remains the ability to comfortably put words to value of my design.

    The ability to give voice to the thoughts and intent behind your work is an important skill. Make sure that you can engage the listener first. Listen to your audience. You will learn how to engage them.

    It is not so much a “sales pitch.” It is give and take. Then give again.

  7. This is a really great piece of writing. Thank you for your insightfullly kind take on what it’s like to be junior as well as what it’s like to be, sometimes heart-breakingly, senior.

  8. Many of us have been there as most commenters agree. But how many of us were fortunate enough – as I was to finally work for a person who knew this would come and did everything they could to educate, and show that young fired up mouthy pup how to better express and articulate what they know to be right?

    Not as many I’m sure. Those are the real people we’re missing, it’s not so much advising young people to ‘not be that guy’ but advising older people to be ‘that guy’ who is going to walk beside you through the gates of hell. Or your first job, whichever one comes first.

  9. Boy, does this resonate. I’ve been doing design for some time and this is a measured reality check. I’m going to enjoy sharing this with my peers, or with students and educators.

    One suggestion. If anyone ever starts to feel fatigued or jaded; try doing some work for a small, grass-roots community group. Volunteer to help them with a problem, or use design to bring some vitality and joy into their work or world. There is a very different experience to be had when working with people who are truly humble.

  10. Good article, Cennydd. Well written and to the point. In my career I had the pleasure to work side by side with a lot of ‘young guns’ and most of them have become very successful in their own career paths. If I would have to choose working together with an established designer -or- a junior designer, I probably would go with the junior. I just love the easiness and lightness in which they approach new design tasks.

    I know too well, that one of our main jobs as designers is to think about the ‘tomorrow’. To think of something that didn’t exist a week ago. We are not like lawyers, who most of the time, need to look at the past; what has been already ‘defined’ and ‘discussed’ by others. It is true, that senior designers are able to produce results quickly, because of their knowledge and previous experiences they can draw from. I call the outcome of this process ‘design with history’ –or– ‘design with tradition’.

    But this is also the biggest trap: Senior designers often try to solve new design problems with old methods and add ‘bias’ where it’s not necessary or required. Senior designers often analyze their work too early and too often. Design has two phases in my opinion: The first one is all about freedom & play. The second one is all about judging and analyzing. I wish I met more designers who are good with phase one.

  11. Very well done, indeed. The only thing I might add is a reminder to never stop learning. When we’re young and magnificent we can think we know it all but we never really do.

  12. Nicely put sir!
    I struggle sometimes to explain to the young ones, how their way of seeing our profession will change with time, but now you’ve given me an easy way to put it. Thank you

  13. so, the author tells those younger than us to not take the path he and many of us took despite the fact that such a path is invaluable. funny.

  14. Thanks for this huge piece of wisdom : I wish I heard that younger but… I’m not sure I would have got it right… That’s the problem with generation gap 🙂

  15. This mindset, this ideal, doesn’t only apply to design. It applies to code, it applies to architecture, it applies to process, it applies to life. Don’t try to change everything at once or you’ll get lost. Find something you can change, change it, and move on to something bigger. Baby steps turn into big things. Great read, thanks!

  16. A lot of hard-earned wisdom here; I’m taking notes myself as well as passing on to some younger colleagues! Thanks for the encouragement and perspective.

  17. Such a great read; a fantastic boot to start my week! There’re always lessons to be learned in design and tempering one’s passion for it is always a good starting point.

    This might be the saddest thing I’ve read in ages: “After all, all our futures shrink with time, until finally the past becomes all we have.”

  18. You’ll never get anywhere with an attitude like that!

    And your article…where’s the brashness, the hyperbole?

    Just kidding, of course. It’s a refreshing read from an obviously mature professional (no offense).

  19. This is good, but I like Andrew’s perspective so much better. Thx John for pointing to that as well. We have been in the spot of the young fiery designer or developer; keeping the fire I think is what challenges all of us from time to time. Our creativity and love for this crazy industry is what ultimately keep us here – reading a list apart, still after so many years. Keep rocking everyone! There are more solutions to design out there!

  20. “…demonstrate the evidence behind your beliefs, rather than the strength of those beliefs.”

    Very nice.

  21. Wow Cennydd, fabulous letter to your younger self. There is a world waiting at one age, that in an instant becomes one behind us, and for my part, I’d change lots of decisions I made and had to live with. There is no pain-free way forward, but there is a fearless staring backward that is worth noting and re-noting. I hope many young designers read and heed. Well done!

  22. Thank you for this wonderful bit of writing. As a young developer (former costumer for film and theatre) I feel very keenly that desperation to know how to do everything and prove yourself right now. But it’s very important not to burn yourself out, and not to burn out everyone else out around you. This is the first time I’ve seen someone put that sentiment so eloquently.

  23. Just WoW!!
    This is one of the most wonderful thing I’ve ever read on Design. Inspiring and Motivating. I’m a design student and I can feel the depth the letter takes to. Thank you.

  24. Thanks, Mr. Cennydd! Really helps me to understand, what I should do & how I should do. Literally, it’s like foreseeing what am about to do and set my focus the right way.

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