Dear Junior Designer

In the US, summer is coming to an end, the weather is getting cooler and college students are heading back to school. I always get a bit nostalgic around this time of year, reflecting back on my college years and subsequently my early years as a designer. Those thoughts remind me of this sentence in Automattic’s creed:

I’ll remember the days before I knew everything

And yes, I certainly remember those days. Like every designer starting out I knew so little about what really mattered. I was ambitious and driven but a bit callow. My perceptions of design were skewed by a formal design education where design was taught as a form of art.

Oh, I’ve come a long way.

I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague

You’ll also find that sentence in our creed. And with that in mind I’d like to extend that opportunity to my “future” colleagues: junior designers. The ones out there biding their time, trying to make a path for themselves in the design world. 

Dear Junior Designer,

I value and support you. You are important to the design discipline. You will soon be where I am today. Actually no, I’m confident you’ll be beyond where I am. You will push boundaries and advance design for the greater good.

I know this because I once was you. Confident in myself, dedicated to my craft, meticulous about every pixel, yet quite naive.

Today, I offer you advice from lessons I’ve learned along my way. I hope they serve you well.

Embrace failure and imperfection

I must be honest with you, your greatest failures are ahead of you. You’re going to be wrong, a lot. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to question your skill and ability.

Failing can be scary and embarrassing. In school, if you failed you were considered to not have made progress and you had to start all over again. See, early in our lives we are conditioned to fear failure, to demand perfection.

The truth is though, failing is the greatest thing that you can do. Failures are our greatest learning opportunities and the best designers embrace them.

Evaluate why you failed. Take note of where your assumptions led you astray. Then learn and move on.

Look for great people to work with, not great companies

This one took me a while. For years I was enchanted by this vision of working for a company where culture was relaxed, nerf guns were a requirement, office video game tournaments were a regular occurrence, and free food was abundant. Certainly those benefits would be a sign I’d “made it” and any company that resembled that vision was the perfect company.

I now work for the “perfect company” and it is great but not for the reasons I imagined. While I enjoy some of the best benefits you’ll find in the industry, that’s not what matters most.

Benefits, much like money, don’t buy you happiness. People do. The people you work with will impact your career and your day-to-day satisfaction level more than any other part of your job.

Find a job where you feel supported by smart people who believe in you, challenge you and will serve as your guard rails along the road of design. Then keep it (for a while at least). Resist the urge to assume that flashy benefits mean you’re in the best place.

Be a steward of design

Design should not be an exclusive practice. At its core, design is about solving problems – an innate skill everyone possesses. Everyone you work with can and will contribute to the design of your product, for better or worse, whether you like it or not. A developer refactors their code, which speeds up your app’s performance, they have just improved the user experience. Everyone who touches your product is a designer.

You may feel threatened by that statement. I did too at first. This doesn’t mean everyone has the same skillsets as you. Your job is safe. What is does mean however is that you’re not the only person who will contribute to the user experience of your product.

You have to shift your mindset from being keeper of all things design to stewarding design within your company.

Keep working, hard. Always be learning. Prioritize people and relationships. Be open-minded and inclusive. I look forward to seeing your contributions to design in the future.


P.S. Come back to see us in the future, maybe you can work with us.

By Mike Shelton

Designer at Automattic, making a little better everyday.