A designer group interview
Four other designers (Maggie Appleton, Erik D. Kennedy, Katie Langerman, and Michael Riddering) and I wrote a question, then everyone answered everyone else’s questions.
Maggie Appleton: What market and social dynamics (related to the design industry) are you most afraid will be amplified and/or escalate over the next 5 years?
I’m both excited and nervous about AI. It’s less about “will AI be able to do the job of a good designer?” and more about “will companies assume that the AI design is good enough because they’d rather spend the salary elsewhere?”.
Alternative answer: On the one hand it’s a shame that many software companies are unprofitable and rely on investment. But on the other hand I doubt there’d be as much interesting software to work on if they all have to make a profit early on.
Erik D. Kennedy
I dislike almost everything about algorithmic feeds: their addictiveness, their incentivizing divisive content (the more you anger people, the more you’ll get paid!), and their patronizing lack of customizability (make 👏 social 👏 a 👏 protocol). I’m not excited to see how these trends will progress in the next 5 years.
I worry that we will continue placing too much value on design tooling over real-world interaction design. I’m grateful for the tooling we have today and I think it enables designers to collaborate better and work towards a higher standard of quality. However, these are still tools that aren’t usually providing production ready code experiences. Designers encounter a point of diminishing returns when the time they spend using a tool to simulate the web exceeds the time spent effectively enhancing the final user experience.
I think we’re feeling the effect of design trends more acutely over the last ~year. The main reason I see is the emergence of “Remix culture”.
At the original Config, Soleio said that design is the future of open source. Now we take for granted Framer remixes, the Figma community, etc. But this idea of being able to duplicate someone’s work with a single click is still a relatively new concept.
Now the question is what happens as breakthrough AI use cases emerge? 🤔 It’s not hard to imagine a world where this behavior accelerates as we’re able to automate elements of the remixing process.
My worry is that web design will become an echo chamber. The easier it is to remix existing high-quality visuals, the less incentive there is to invest the time necessary for breakthrough patterns.
Anthony Hobday: What’s the most cynical or practical advice you’d put your name to?
A non-trivial part of design work should be thinking about and planning for dark, depressing, worst case scenarios in the near future.
Erik D. Kennedy
The 12-column grid is all but useless in responsive digital design. (And color theory, type scales, and vertical rhythm are completely impractical as well).
People often talk about the importance of “managing up” for career growth. I think it's more important to focus on being a “good citizen”. Practice kindness and curiosity, and help your peers out when you can.
There’s very little incentive to stay in a design role for more than a year when you’re early in your career. The fastest way to grow is getting exposed to different types of products and problem spaces. And you can increase your salary 2x faster than waiting for a promotion.
Erik D. Kennedy: What is a deep and important truth about design that you know, but is generally unknown/undervalued/ignored/disbelieved?
Software design and software development aren't two different disciplines. They're the same discipline, grotesquely chopped into two halves, leaving us with poorly designed, buggy, and inelegant software. We’re only in the baby phase of software creation and currently terrible at it.
There’s no such thing as a natural or innate talent for design. Some of us grew up around things that are better designed, and picked up on the implicit rules faster. But anyone can study good design and get better.
Accessibility isn’t talked about enough when it comes to interface design. Sometimes the way it's discussed can feel like a show stopper, or an ultimatum. I think it can feel like a threat to a designer’s ego to make them aware that certain patterns they use and recognize as industry standard are fundamentally inaccessible. It’s easy to ignore these facts right now, but I think this is shifting.
You can think of most digital products as a collection of blocks. If you solve each product problem in isolation then you’ll end up creating a new block for each solution.
The best designers can see the entire set of blocks as well as anticipate future product needs. From that vantage point, success isn’t just solving all of the problems. It’s figuring out the puzzle using the least number of unique blocks. This preserves simplicity as the feature surface area grows and increases the ROI of the entire product team.
Katie Langerman: If you’ve experienced a negative or dark time professionally, how did you move through it and were you able to determine the underlying cause?
I've struggled a lot being on small teams where the co-founder(s) don't see design as a specialised skill and are competing with you to be the designer. When I was younger and less confident, I'd defer to them – they're the ones in charge, after all. They're the ones with the money and power. It took years for me to feel confident enough in my skills and expertise to firmly point out (and show through well documented research, design explorations, and reasoning) that my design opinion is actually worth more than theirs.
The one time I’ve experienced something like burnout, it was because I believed design should be a certain way, and the people around me didn’t care. It’s hard to slam your head against that brick wall over and over. I left that job, but at the same time I realised that it’s important not to be tied to an approach as a designer. The things you tie yourself to should probably be more fundamental, like “high quality”. It’s also important to find colleagues who care about the same things you do.
Erik D. Kennedy
This sounds like it’s specifically asking about burnout (or murky emotional stuff), which I’ve never experienced to any notable degree. But maybe the root causes of why I haven’t felt burnt out are interesting too? I’d attribute it to maintaining strong interests outside of work, also running a design business where many projects feel like “side projects” in their own right (a new YouTube video! A new color tool for designers!) – at least compared to more rote client work.
An hour before my wedding rehearsal dinner my startup’s lead engineer told me that he was leaving and I knew it would be the final death blow to my company after 4+ years. I used to think “going to $0” was the worst-case-scenario. Turns out it’s not. You can pretty easily go into debt and face lawsuits too 😅
It took me a long time to recover from that failure and I certainly don’t think I handled it well. But looking back I think that’s what officially turned me into a designer. Because I spent the next year working like a madman taking any gig I could get my hands on to dig my way out.
Michael Riddering: What design skill or piece of understanding created an inflection point in your career?
Writing well, communicating clearly, and being able to break complex problems down into smaller, specific sub-problems is 10x more important than making aesthetically pleasing drop shadows and gradients. Shifted my gaze from landing page inspiration websites to books on object-oriented software design and information architecture.
Neither of these is a design skill, but I assume they’ve helped my career more than anything else: I started to write down everything I know, and I started to post regularly on Twitter. When you make a habit of writing about design, even if you just list things, it creates extra knowledge. A “knock two stones together and sparks fly” situation. If you create something and put it in front of people, consistently and for a long time, you’ll meet new people, learn new things, inspire others, and it’ll help your career.
Erik D. Kennedy
If there’s an inflection point in my career, it was publishing a piece called “7 Rules for Creating Gorgeous UI”. It went viral, and changed my client situation dramatically, and also laid the path for me to teach online. So, the design tips in that article are the “tipping point knowledge” for my career.
Attending my first Smashing Conf in 2019 and reading Brad Frost’s Atomic Design on the flight home was a turning point for me as I became more aware of design systems and the kinds of people who tend to work on them (designer/developer hybrid types). Since then I’ve really delved into a blend of front-end development and design, and consider myself a specialist in design systems. It’s easier to progress and improve your skill set when you feel that you are part of a community.