The Love You Make

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.

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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

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.

13 Reader Comments

  1. Great advice! One thing that has always perturbed me about this business, however, is a freelance designer that only writes Photoshop tutorials or other articles for fellow designers. Do clients ever care? I have never come across one that does. They care about your competence in design, sure. But they can see that.

    I have always focused my writing on things that have a direct impact on my clients’ business, things they can use. It “wins” me at $20K a year in new business. When someone sees how you can help them – both through your design work and your knowledge of business and marketing – they are much more likely to pick up the phone.

    My portfolio speaks to my skill in building websites and using all of the necessary tools. Writing about client-focused issues demonstrates my business knowledge. Also, it let’s me keep in touch with them via email newsletters, etc. Every time I write a new article I get a call from an old client saying: “Help me do this.”

    Just food for thought.

  2. I think @Jack raises a good point, which is to put some attention and thought (and dare I say… content strategy?) into your audience and reasons for writing. I used to write pieces aimed at clients, and never landed a single project based on that work. Once I started writing for colleagues, though, now they send me all kinds of leads and referrals because they know what kinds of problems I’m good at solving. Friends who work for agencies (and have no desire to go independent) may want to connect with industry leaders and conference organizers, not clients. None of these paths is right or wrong; it’s more a matter of what works best for you and your business/personal development plans.

  3. Great response, Jeffrey. Design, or any ideas that take root in a culture have to be sold. It’s knowing the Why that produces the What. Just like you won the Batman Forever website by knowing that Batman doesn’t talk, being able to articulate the reasons for design decision or crucial when winning clients. Winning them over to your ideas is important every step of the project.

    Words carry. In speaking, writing, any form of articulating your ideas is just as important as being able to draw or design in Photoshop.
    Your esteemed colleague, Mike Monteiro, said recently that design you did not sell is as worthless as design that you did not make.

    Clients and colleagues both can only know how we think if we continually express what we’re thinking and why. Writing, speaking, podcasting, or making videos is part of the designers outreach to the rest of the world.

    Jack and Ellen make excellent points as well. Jack said he wins business by speaking directly to his clients. Ellen take some more indirect approach and rights for her colleagues, but wins business on their referrals. Each person is different, each path is different. What is important is that we put our thoughts out there on a regular basis. It is not enough to show the artifacts of our design we have to show the thinking process that went into making those artifacts.

  4. I have always focused my writing on things that have a direct impact on my clients’ business, things they can use. It “wins” me at $20K a year in new business.

    There is wisdom in that, @Jack. At my agency, Happy Cog, we will never design so much as a pixel on spec. But we will sit for hours with a potential client, soaking up everything we can about their business—and especially about those business problems they’re having that can be solved through design. Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. I used to write pieces aimed at clients, and never landed a single project based on that work. Once I started writing for colleagues, though, now they send me all kinds of leads and referrals because they know what kinds of problems I’m good at solving.

    Interesting, @Eileen! Except for personal pieces, all my writing in the past 20 years has been for colleagues. Initially I did this simply to do it. I did it because I was excited about web design and wanted to share what I was learning. That is still my fundamental motivation, although, over time, “share what I was learning” mixed with an occasional desire to help positively influence the direction the field was taking (positively by my lights, anyway).

    For me, this led not so much to referral jobs via colleagues (as in your case), but to being invited to pitch projects because someone on the client team—perhaps a front-end designer/developer, or someone in IT—liked the way my team and I thought about design for the web, and wanted to work with us, or at least consider doing so. The CEO might not necessarily have included us in the mix, but a senior designer/developer did—and sometimes we get the gig.

    Writing to your peers and having work (or at least potential jobs) land in your lap as a result also worked for folks like Jesse-James Garret and Jeff Veen, back when they were running Adaptive Path. If you’re passionate about *craft*, you should write about craft. If what you say has some validity, it may bring in work.

    For other people, the right direction is what @Jack suggested. Back when Jason Fried was running 37signals as a consulting design studio, he and his colleagues wrote as much about business problems as they did about design patterns—and the client services work flowed in.

    The bottom line is probably, write about what you’re passionate about. Don’t necessarily do it as a means of getting work. Approach it as a writing challenge: you want to clarify your best ideas and communicate them as cleanly (and entertainingly) as you can. Think of doing this for the benefit of your chosen audience, be it business folk or your fellow designers. Aim for the prize of effective writing, and you may land the additional prize of paying design work.

  6. What is important is that we put our thoughts out there on a regular basis. It is not enough to show the artifacts of our design we have to show the thinking process that went into making those artifacts.

    Right on, @John. Also agree with all points in your comment. And am blushing that you remembered that Batman story.

  7. One of the defining moments of my career was at a Thunder Lizard Conference in Denver–maybe 1998, at the very start of my career. The ideas you shared are what put me on this crazy 15 year journey of web design 😀

    The first 12 of those years were all about reading and watching. Webmonkey taught me how to code. Joshua Davis taught me to wonder “What if?” and Simon Sinek taught me to start with why. And all of them helped shape my design philosophy. I wouldn’t believe what I do today without their (and your) influence.

    It wasn’t until maybe three years ago that I started writing, speaking and teaching on a regular basis. I’ve been really stoked to discover that having to articulate what I believe when teach a class, write a post, or prep a presentation has helped me to develop a better understanding of who I am as a designer. It’s a pretty rad side effect.

  8. Can it be clarified what “equally meaningful content” you find comparable to blogs you expect from designers and developers—particularly budding developers towards hiring them being hired?

    Particularly with new developers, it can be rather odd being encouraged to write articles when there’s a high chance that the articles they’re considering writing they feel will have a “this is all information you can read from the documentation in merely a different voice and differently worded sentences” vibe when they’re read by others.

    Similarly, being encouraged to write blogs about evangelizing a certain way of doing things can seem premature to write for newcomers since they can easily feel they’re not in a position yet to have weight or reason to write such blogs seemingly.

    What advice would you give developers to overcome such thoughts to not be discouraged to begin giving back towards getting positive things in return such as job opportunities?

    Finally, what about new developers who have a passion of wanting to solve actual problems for others, causes, and organizations but couldn’t care less about expressing themselves?

    Considering there’s a lot of pressure these days is to create “pet projects”, that seems pretty hard to do for particular newcomers coming from homelessness, a background of never being part of a community or kinship to help (or grow inspiration from), and so on…

    Such developers—especially if they have reservations of writing for reasons similar to the ones I pointed above—are bound to have a continuous chicken-and-egg problem, despite very likely having the skills to at least be employable.

    Obviously an oversimplification, it’s strange to me if a developer is gifted enough as far as technical skills to be employed aren’t hired because they’re essentially forced to write to “prove” their passion to an potential employer who may stand firm of never hiring them unless they do otherwise (if such a stance is followed to the extreme).

    Web development “being a team sport”, there’s definitely talented people that want to do good work for clients and just go home afterwards—is it becoming harder than ever for people to do that from the very beginning (Not unlike people like Marshall Lynch or Jony Ive) ?

    Or it’s sort of the web development version of an initiation where newcomers must write blogs or temporarily evangelize till they can live that sort of way?

    I personally believe everyone should become talented enough in an industry to eventually contribute towards the industry being improved in some way, help it be more approachable for newcomers, and so on.

    However, I don’t know if budding developers or types of people I mentioned above should be expected immediately to go out of their way to write blogs in order to get opportunities they’re otherwise capable of fulfilling since it’s too easy for them to pollute the web with uninspired, bad content.

  9. One of my biggest weaknesses is my ability to spell, it is like a wet cheese sandwich trying to fight of a famished cheese eating tiger. So after 11 yrs in the web/design industry I finally launched a blog section in my site. It’s pretty rough and kinda hidden on my site. The one thing I like about it is I can now put my thoughts in “print” and it lets me flesh out a deeper meaning (also highlight my bad spelling which I can fix) as well as to start developing that skill of explaining/educating a wider audience. I now write about things that interests me but also responds to client needs/request, it’s almost a personal work diary. I’m always a bit behind the times but also look out towards the front of the pack.

    Thanks Dr for words of encouragement to get out there amongst it in a thoughtful way.

  10. One of the defining moments of my career was at a Thunder Lizard Conference in Denver—maybe 1998, at the very start of my career. The ideas you shared are what put me on this crazy 15 year journey of web design 😀

    The first 12 of those years were all about reading and watching. Webmonkey taught me how to code. Joshua Davis taught me to wonder “What if?” and Simon Sinek taught me to start with why. And all of them helped shape my design philosophy. I wouldn’t believe what I do today without their (and your) influence.

    It wasn’t until maybe three years ago that I started writing, speaking and teaching on a regular basis. I’ve been really stoked to discover that having to articulate what I believe when teach a class, write a post, or prep a presentation has helped me to develop a better understanding of who I am as a designer. It’s a pretty rad side effect.

    Personally, I find the “defining” influence of people like @zeldman to be a key aspect of anyone’s personal and professional development. It’s easy to talk about influencers, mentors and the like, but sometimes there’s just the need for a reference 🙂

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