Part Three :: Role Model is a complicated job description
Henry Dreyfuss was a famous industrial designer who embraced a career meander. He started his career working on theatrical sets, but his body of work spanned locomotives and cars to kitchens and telephones. His firm, Henry Dreyfuss & Associates, created functional sculpture for decades.
They determined how users would operate new types of devices and machines. I see this as the first generation mass production of consumer-grade Human Computer Interaction*.
The company didn’t turn down work that wasn’t well defined. Dreyfuss built a business by doing something that few had an established method for doing. His passion for problem-solving took him places he could not have anticipated. His staff guided the emerging practice of Industrial Design.
John Maeda might be the best example of someone that has taken multiple career meanders. I doubt someone could have laid out a path for him to where he is today.
Undergraduate and graduate degrees in Computer Science from MIT, where he went on to run the Media Lab for 12 years. Five years as the president of RISD. Design partner at KBCP. Board member for both Sonos and Wieden + Kennedy. His annual report on design and technology is required reading for designers of all shapes/sizes/experience levels. The list goes on. And on.
John didn’t stick with a traditional career path. He seems to have followed his passions where they have led him. He also looks like he’s having a good time doing so**.
Tina Roth Eisenberg (aka Swiss Miss) is it’s Founder and CEO of Creative Mornings. If you haven’t attended one of these events you are missing out. She is also a practicing designer who found the time to create a few iPhone apps, a company named Tattly, and a co-working space named Friends.
Yves Behar is another example of someone with no fear of unfamiliar territory. He worked at Frog and Lunar only to found FuseProject, in which he sold a partial interest. He has spent a career serving a straight-up dreamy roster of clients. ID Program Chair at CalArts. CCO at Jawbone. Ouya. OLPC.
Serial Entrepreneur seems to be anything but a career path.
Designers are trained to solve problems. This mindset can be successfully applied to other contexts. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia are both educated as designers. At one point they sold $40 boxes of “Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCains” cereal during the 2008 election season to fund an idea they had.
Their next stop was shopping their concept to the famed Y-Combinator incubator. Today Airbnb is valued north of $31bn. Brian and Joe are earning more, and (hopefully***) are enjoying work more having embraced their career meanders.
There are more stories of designers doing rad and unexpected things than I have time to write about. There is endless clickbait with titles similar to ‘designers are the next generation of CEOs.’ It seems like every design-centric publication tells its readers in Q1 of <insert year here> could be the breakout year for design. Sigh.
I will admit to seeing job postings spike in the last decade.
Demand side designonomics
Demand for design is a function of many factors. I may have a skewed perspective as to what has driven them. I was fortunate to be at Motorola just after the RAZR launched. I did research on IoT and Bluetooth headsets before wearables were cool. I worked on mobile phones that competed with the (then) venerable Blackberry.
During my time at Motorola, the iPhone and Android launched, increasing UX expectations for millions of people. It was 2007. All the sudden a pocket computer became far more enjoyable than the shitty desktop software you spent most of your day using.
There were other shifts in technology around the same time. Cloud computing reduced the barrier to entry for enterprise software. Traditional costs of doing digital business decreased. Chipsets improved, antennas and accelerometers got both better and smaller. The nature of interaction was becoming richer — more became possible.
Companies that treated the internet as little more than ‘e-marketing’ scrambled to catch up. They needed a mobile application or mobile-first website. Or both.
Definitely both. The internet was, at the very least, a dynamic business card of sorts. Until you brought your capabilities online. Your website soon needed to reflect an ability to deliver across both physical and digital touchpoints.****
Demand for quality UX has never been higher. Physical products are a commodity, with margins eroding due to the competitive landscape. Digital product is in a similar position; Similar value propositions, feature sets, and few ways to reduce cost leave little room for price reduction. Competition is high.
Differentiation is critical — This is but one of design’s many jobs to deliver on.
Supply side designonomics
The number of designers has increased to address market demand. There are more UX programs than there were a decade ago. Visual Communication and Industrial Design curriculums now address this demand. These two areas of concentration share several skills: storytelling, user research, rapid iteration, and creative problem-solving.
Since UX is a field that values generalists, it attracts people of all backgrounds. Some of the best designers I have worked with don’t have a degree in design. Having natural talent, however, doesn’t mean a person doesn’t work hard at delivery.
Some people are naturally gifted at creative problem solving, regardless of education.
If someone from outside design can come in, pick up the tools, and be effective, it isn’t a threat to the industry. John Maeda came into design with a strong background in computer science. Since doing so he has been an educator, advocate, and evangelist.
Passionate outsiders should encourage designers to look at their partners in delivery with intellectual curiosity. Creative Mornings delivers on inspiring content of this nature on an ongoing basis. I can tell you from experience that empathy with coworkers results in better workplaces.
There is always room for a meander
Is Product Management something to explore? Should a designer look into building skills in Content Strategy, Front End Development, Research or Copywriting? Is it too late in my career to look at other options? I can’t definitively say yes or no. But I can encourage anyone to increase their exposure to other roles before specializing.
I do caution designers before career switching. Areas adjacent to design require similar rigor, attention to detail, and passion. Discuss your options with non-designer peers at work. They can provide valuable perspective on other disciplines.
Designer skill sets transfer well as long as the work ethic is there. Air BnB wasn’t an overnight success. Don’t expect to be an expert in another field overnight.
Walking away from a preconceived career path is not easy. Sweat equity is difficult to ignore. Weighing opportunity cost versus time spent on a current career takes time and care. Yet what is the worst thing that could happen?
There is nothing that says you can’t return to what you were doing before. There is no equation to apply. Having changed jobs myself, I emerged knowing what I didn’t want to do and what spaces I didn’t want to work in.
Knowing what you don’t want to do helps you navigate toward what you will be eager to do.
Designers — embrace your ability to follow your passion. Address feeling bored or not challenged. Try something new; a role, an industry, or simply expand your skillset. There have never been more spaces to explore or technologies to specialize in. Design your own career path.
Enjoy your meander.
Big shout out to John Howrey, Nick Gall, Don Hogan, Paul Sohi, Jacquelyn Martino, and Seth Johnson. This crew was patient and flexible with my iteration and edit cycles. I can’t thank them enough for their support.
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Consumer = attainable by most employed people. Not to be confused with ‘Military Grade,’ which has it’s own set of constraints and requirements.
**Mr. Maeda came to speak at IBM while in Austin for SXSW, and I totally shook his hand — just ask him about it.
***ok I have never met these guys, but I’m sure they don’t regret chasing their dream.
***Note I didn’t say ‘omnichannel’ because….wait do people still use that term in 2018?
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