Dec 11, 2020
Rasmus Andersson is a Swedish designer living in San Francisco, California. He was most recently designing at Figma where he helped shape the next generation of design tools. Before this, he designed at Dropbox, Facebook, and was the first designer at Spotify.
Was there a moment where things “clicked” that solidified your decision to stay on the IC track? If so, how do you reflect on this moment looking back?
For a long time I wasn’t fully conscious about the decision. I was driven by passion and interest. But eventually, trying other career tracks like management, software engineering, etc. helped me realize I was happier as a designer, over time, than when in other roles.
It also helped meeting and talking with other people who had successfully stayed on an IC track or managed to find a way to keep building and creating, like Nicholas Felton, Guido Van Rossum, Jony Ive, Lee Byron, Koen Bok and many others. This really helped me feel comfortable and come to terms with my own draw toward making rather than coordinating.
Really, I think coordination vs creation is what it comes down to for me. They are two very different categories of concerns and you really have to feel connected to it in order to be willing to learn, evolve and enjoy your work.
As a designer my concerns are with planning, puzzling and learning. When I tried working in a software-engineering capacity, the concerns were similar, but with other materials and a very different way of learning.
With management it’s almost like a completely different universe where little to none of the skills of a designer are useful. It’s more about politics and juggling particular needs of individuals on your team. I admire people who are good at this and I really think it’s one of the hardest things you can do in life.
To me, choosing to be a designer means my concerns are focused around the following four categories:
Problem: What is the opportunity or issue that needs to change? What’s the history?
Constraints: What do we know already? Where do we start exploring and unearthing more? This is a big part of design in my opinion: exploring constraints, learning and growing, then navigating constraints. Also, what materials do we work with and what are our options and trade-offs?
People: Who are we doing this for, and what do they care about?
Craft: less about a project, and more about a designer’s own ability to be effective, efficient and able to communicate their ideas.
What advice would you give to a senior designer who is trying to decide between the IC track and management track?
Recognize that you’d be “going back to school” to learn a whole new skill-set. It’s a bit like a restaurant chef who starts a juice company — they are still in the food industry but their day-to-day is very different. What, and who, they spend time with has almost no overlap and the skills needed to be a great chef are likely quite different than what you need to successfully start and run a juice company.
Let me offer you something else by asking you a question:
What type of person do you want to spend most of your time with?
As a manager it will be coworkers, as a designer it will be the customers of whatever you are designing. Both are important aspects of the path to mastery, but it can be useful sometimes to try looking at something from a different perspective.
For me, the thought of spending hours a week, every week, for years speaking with customers of, for example, Figma or early Spotify, is exciting! It’s something that makes my brain tingle! You really have to introspect and listen to yourself to find your own answer to this question though.
What trade-offs or risks, if any, should designers know about before continuing down the IC path?
It will likely always be a challenge to feel like you are learning and “progressing.” This will be totally fine as long as you’re willing to work on building mental tools and constructs to help yourself.
Tribes, friend circles, neighborhoods, countries, or professional organizations will have varying degrees of meaning attached to roles, titles and money. For example, in the USA a management title is important to many people because of history and culture; being the Foreman at a factory meant you were exceptionally skilled. This obviously doesn’t hold true in all cases, but understanding what political and social meaning your choice has will be important. Really, recognizing what group of people would make you feel most happy, most fulfilled.
As a career IC you will have to be really good at what you are doing in order to increase monetary compensation. If you are reading this, chances are you are already interested in, or already on, the path to mastery as a career IC designer. And that likely means you want to be the best you can be at your job. That’s great. Don’t worry about it too much though.
Speaking of compensation, depending on the company and region on Earth, management might or might not be considered a harder task and already command a higher level of monetary compensation than a designer. This varies quite a bit in my experience. Some companies, especially traditional or old ones, tend to give managers a higher salary than ICs simply by tradition and belief.
In some cultures, like in Japanese industry, there are even compensation models assuming that management is part of anyone’s career path (e.g. compensation as the sum area of a square where x is experience and y the number of people you manage).
If you are going to work or live in a place that is like this, it might be much harder to pursue an IC career.
For designers committed to staying on the IC track beyond the senior level, what are the most important skills they should learn outside of the hard craft skills?
The more experience you have, the more implicit authority you will have. It can be tough to understand that when you propose a silly idea over lunch when you have 5 years of experience has a very different impact than when you have 15 years of experience — someone might actually listen to you and go make it!
Really, this is a great thing, a sort of influential power you gain. It needs love, care and maintenance though — always work on getting better, learning from your mistakes and improving on your experience. There’s nothing more dangerous for an organization than a person with terrible ideas whom everyone admires professionally.
Powers you will have as an experienced IC:
Experience with many things. What you are tackling today you might have experience with from the past. Use and share this experience in an informative way, not in a directing way! The past is different from the now, and the circumstances, people, and technology are definitely not the same. Avoid using your past experience as definitive facts or imposition as constraints.
Sense of quality: You will likely have a better intuition for quality than professionally-younger designers.
Intuition around cost. Design is not art, even though it can accidentally be seen as art later on. All design challenges have some form of budget: time, money, etc. With your experience, you’ve used your amazing human brain to form connections that gives you intuition...a form of premonition. You can sense that “this option will probably be much more costly than that option.”
This is great stuff and in some way what makes a good designer efficient: the ability to estimate and approximate the path to good decisions and solutions. Work on making use of this intuition, dare to “trust your gut.” Work on communicating these hunches to your coworkers in a way that is never condescending or dismissive but rather assistive.
For example, if you feel that the information density is too high, that there is too much information being displayed, you might start a conversation about how important approachability is to the thing you are building. In contrast, what you probably shouldn’t do, is to assert implicit authority — perhaps unconsciously — by saying “this won’t work, it’s way too dense.”
By leveling up to the subject or category of your intuition’s concern, you can help your coworkers see what you see: that the design may be a bit overwhelming. When people come to a concrete conclusion like that on their own, they are much better equipped to do a good job at addressing it. Sometimes it also turns out that your intuition is misdirected and a short conversation can help you realize that.
What are the mile markers for you to know that you are still growing as a designer and progressing in your career?
I try to make things in ways which are new to me. When I do this, I have to spend time studying to learn, and that is really the focus of most of my hobby projects. When I come back to the thing I was making, and apply what I learned, I can feel that I made some progress. Sometimes this bears no fruit; sometimes it is not interesting or I fail to learn and that’s okay.
Another one: when professional people I look up to show their interest and support in my ideas. For example, I’ve dabbled in typography since the early 2000s but never been great at it until a few years ago when I decided to really focus on learning and getting good at making typefaces.
It took a year or so of pretty hard work before some designers in the typography industry reached out, recognized my progress, and in every single case helped me get even better and helped me see my own work in different ways. To me this really feels like improving and is important to me.
Finally, respect from leaders of organizations. When someone at a company with direct personal influence over its success or failure asks me for advice, I know that I’ve been able to build trust and do a good job as a designer. You, reader, probably agree with me that design as a tool and method is something fit for many problems, not just graphic problems or user interfaces. As a career IC designer, a goal of mine is to offer design (“design thinking” if you will) as a tool fit for many problems. When this is recognized and actually applied successfully, you’ve accomplished something that might only be possible as an advanced IC designer.
How important are titles for individual contributors when it comes to impact or decision making? Is there a meaningful difference between Staff, Principal, and beyond?
My personal opinion: Your title is for other people. It’s like a name badge. It helps you set expectations for other people who may interact with you. So really what title is the right one, if any at all, will be heavily dependent on the organization and people around you. If you work at a small company with just a handful of people, you probably all know each other and you really only want to consider what customers might need in terms of titles.
Titles can also be a trap, especially publicly and really hamper the effectiveness of an organization or yourself. If you announce yourself as a “UX Designer” there will be some people who put you into a specific category in their minds which is likely completely different from another person’s category for the same title. Some titles have more powerful meaning than others. Some titles have more varying meaning, less established meaning.
I’d consider two distinct titles:
In what ways are you practicing and improving your hard skills as you grow? How important is it to stay sharp with your hard skills?
I’m trying to make something every day.
I’m always learning about new things. I listen to some science and nature podcasts and then go research a little more about something I hadn’t thought of before. For example, I learned about how tree leaves have this chemical composition that is significantly altered during Fall and how it changes their reflective radio properties. That’s what makes leaves change color. Learning about stuff in general makes it easier to learn about “important” stuff, stuff directly related to being a good designer, when it’s needed.
To directly answer your question: It is imperative to stay sharp with your hard skills. Imagine going to university and getting a professor who lost touch with their craft. Not only will your time and money be less efficient, but you may even learn the wrong things. As experienced professionals, we have a considerable influence on people who are earlier in their path to mastery. By staying current on hard skills – like color management and display technology of the latest generation computers – we are able to help other designers do better, build better things and to a higher degree of happiness and product quality.
The manager track has a very clear growth trajectory in terms of title and scope. High level IC work seems much less clear. What do you see yourself working on in 5-10 years?
Yes this is so true. I’ve helped work on models for this at a few companies in the past. There is no good model yet I think, or at least not what I’ve heard of or experienced.
At some point on your path to mastery you feel like you’ve reached a plateau, a place where no matter the effort you put in you don’t “progress.” I’m trying to focus on what “progress” means much more so than how to progress, if that makes sense. In other words, can it be so that when I feel like I’m not evolving, not progressing, it is because my idea of what progress is doesn’t fit reality? I think yes, or at least “yes, it’s complicated.”
In the next 10 years there are a few shift changes to software that I’m betting on. I hope that I get to be a part of some of that. Perhaps as a contributor or perhaps as a leader. I would only start a company if I really had to, so ideally I’ve found a group of people who pursue something that is meaningful, where we all think differently than most others and where we all share a bold bet on the future.
Finally, being a designer who has been mainly focused on software for the past 15 years, I see this slow evolution happening that has happened in other, more mature fields of design: Being a designer today and tomorrow increasingly means understanding the materials you are working with, like how computers work, and the greater constraints around work we are doing.
Let’s take user interface design as an example. As a UI designer you are connecting humans and computers. You are shaping tools that people use to make stuff or entertain themselves with. Now let’s think about a furniture designer. Say that you are asked to solve this problem: We need to come up with a way to give people a rest and sit by a table. “Great! Let’s make a chair” you think. So you ask “what is the budget? When do you need it? Who will be sitting on these chairs? Only children? What about people in wheelchairs, are we approaching that with a separate product or is that a constraint? ...” and so on.
Okay so you draw a picture of a chair in some environment. It looks great. The concept is just right for the problem. Maybe you’ve made a chair that’s injection molded as a single piece of recycled PET. Cool. So you just send the picture to a factory, right, and out comes a chair? No, of course not. You’d get something that maybe, if you’re lucky, resembles what you intend and you fail to solve the problem.
Instead, you build a test chair. You experiment with injection molding at different atmospheric pressures. You try vacuum molding. Maybe you realize PET is not dense enough and that heavier humans cause the chair to break. So you try increasing pressure which does not make the chairs not wobble! Great, but now you need more material for the chair and the price might have to change so that’s part of the design process too now.
Eventually you have a wonky and hacky chair prototype that fits your constraints. This is when you involve people who are experts at materials and manufacturing! This is when you can, with confidence, start producing the chair – which of course means months of close collaboration with the manufacturer before you can “ship.”
The design process of software UI is eventually going to look the same as what I just described. Choosing to design software UI is choosing to work with the materials. It is making a choice to really learn and understand these materials. For software design, materials are programs, instructions for the computer, along with hardware – like displays and input devices. Programming may seem like it’s a skill only needed for people in the software “manufacturing industry” but really it’s not that clear of a contrasting line; it’s a gradient, of course.
How do you choose which hard skills to continue thinking about and investing in? We have all the current tools and skills, but then there’s also like future things like 3D or AR, VR, XR – future industry stuff. Do you have a framework for deciding that something is interesting enough to continue researching it?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I think there’s a couple of different facets to this question. One is: what can directly help you be a better designer, or be a better person, whatever that means. Very concretely: things that can essentially help you.
And I think the other part is curiosity and interest. What is interesting today? What’s interesting tomorrow? Maybe these are different things. Then it’s more about entertainment on a very high level – what is enjoyable?
And then I think there might be a couple of other facets like: what do you think might be important for you to know, even though it’s not fun to learn? It might be things like “maybe I should learn about taxes” because you know it could be useful. That kind of thing.
But I think the first two are the most interesting. And so the first is what is practically helpful: understanding that there are things like different color spaces, and understanding how color is represented by a computer, like RGB, or CMYK, or other ways to represent color.
Like, what is a pixel? And what is a pixel if I’m writing CSS? Because that’s not a pixel. What is a point? What is a point if I’m in InDesign? Because if I’m in iOS, a point is a different thing, right? If I’m in Figma, it’s slightly different again.
All of these things are very practical things; I would count these as hard skills.
If you understand the difference between a virtual pixel and a CSS pixel, and a Sketch pixel, and the actual screen of the computer, then you can have conversations with other people that are not misleading.
If someone says “this should be 100x100 pixels,” and if you’re not speaking the same language, you’re gonna end up with an unexpected result. So much of design is about understanding what’s going on, planning for what to do, realizing something, and communication.
“Oh, why should I know these technical implementation details?” It’s not really about understanding the technical aspects of it. It’s not really about understanding how things work. I think that fits into the other facets I was talking about earlier: it just sets you up in your ability to communicate to others, and be accurate, and be able to present arguments that are based in rationality, and backed by facts. This is opposed to saying “Oh, you know, this color doesn’t look right.”
If you can’t see why it doesn’t look right, you might just end up spinning for days and getting frustrated. And other people won’t understand because maybe they have a different color profile and things look different for them. It looks correct for them and they don’t get it.
Those are examples of things that I try to identify and sniff out. I take notes as I stumble upon them and then learn about them with a rough sense in my mind like, “if I ever need this information at a high resolution, this is roughly how it looks like.”
Can you give an example of that?
So working on Figma and a desktop application setup, you often have to deal with keyboard input and there’s a really wide variety of keyboards in the world. Just knowing that a backslash character, or the dollar sign, things like that – there are many ways to map those.
You can map them to hardware key inputs that vary by every single keyboard manufacturer. You can map them to virtual key codes, which do vary, too. You can also map them to the end result – like in web development, you probably operate at a very high level of saying, “this is the text that I want to get out of it.”
When I worked at Spotify, I had to learn about this and I found this amazing web page that Apple maintained. It was a really, really long list of keyboards. It was: “Here’s some keyboard. Here’s what it looks like. Here’s the layout of it.”
So I remember that keyboards are tricky and key codes are tricky. I don’t need to memorize more than that. Whenever I deal with keyboard input, I just think about that: These are tricky. And then little flag goes up. From there I can go find that article or reference.
One thing that scares me about this approach is that it seems tricky to identify the skills that are timeless and the skills that might go away. You could imagine a scenario where you over-invest on a tool or a framework or something that actually won’t be relevant in 10 years.
For example, will the whole pixel conversation, or color spaces examples be relevant forever? I could imagine a world where it becomes so abstract to a point where nobody really needs to care about those anymore. Does that make sense?
I think there’s definitely a spectrum here, like an asymptote in time, right? At work, there are some things that are relevant for a week or a day. Let’s say that you have to go and work on some very specific piece of hardware. That is a one-time use thing. Like in advertising, sometimes this is the case, right?
And on the other side of the spectrum I think you have high level skills that are slipping a little bit outside of the definition of hard skills. So it depends on how you define that, of course, but things like, grid systems and typography, and ideas about color, like wavelengths – if you want to think about it from a scientific perspective.
If you do buy this framework that there’s a spectrum of things, that there are things that will be irrelevant for you to know a month and things that will be relevant when you die of old age, right? Well, the bulk of stuff is going to be somewhere scattered in the middle. For things that have a really long shelf life, obviously putting in a bigger investment for those things may pay off over time.
Putting in a big investment into things you only need to know right now might be a loss, so to speak. You know, like if you spend a whole week learning about this thing that you just need to know for a few days, then the balance is off.
It’s like that XKCD comic of like how much time you should spend automating a thing on one axis, versus how much time it will save you on the other axis, you know?
That’s a great example of that. It’s particularly true in software programming, right? “Oh, I could script this.” And like two days later I run the script that like draws this thing, but it would have taken maybe four hours to just do it from hand.
It’s sort of a fundamentally tricky thing for a lot of people. Design practice in general is making so many of these decisions, right? You start out with this sort of brief or idea or task. And you take things apart to understand what’s going on, to find all these constraints. And then you hit something that smells funny, so to speak. So you start Googling something and then the hours start ticking. And at some point while you’re untangling this thing that was unexpected, you have to ask yourself: “Should I just cut my losses right now? Is this actually going to be one of these important things to understand?”
Sometimes it’s a saddening thing.
My off-the-shelf strategy is to try to sniff out if this thing is gonna have a long shelf life.
You brought up things like color space and color management. Yes. I think we’ve been saying for a very long time that it will be solved. It would be solved for us in the 90s. But even then it was just as relevant to understand it as it is today.
So it’s tough to say, right?
What do you think about things like OS or medium-level skills? For example, from 2008 to 2012, there was this big question: “should I learn to design for mobile?” And then there’s been this sort of split between people who are “mobile designers” and “web designers.”
Do you think about design skills in terms of that?
One way of replying to that is that I think you have to have some way to categorize different skill sets, right? Because otherwise you’ll say “I’m doing a little bit of everything.”
But I would recommend against thinking about categories of skills in terms of specific platforms. Think about it this way: there are experiences that are portable, right? There are things that people like to use at high frequency, for short periods of time, right? And if you want to map that to a specific device, that’s one way of specializing.
I would recommend thinking about it in this way because it’s more focused around the actual final user experience, and on the humans.
And another way of thinking about it is like “I’m really curious about people who use things on the move.” There might be a GPS telephone that someone uses for an expedition to Mount Everest, and there’s also an iOS app. There might be a lot of things in common with how people actually make use of those two different things.
So to sum that up: I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with saying “I’m focused on desktop skills” or “I want to hone in on my Android skills.” But I think that there’s more to gain from thinking about it in terms of “I want to get better stationary interfaces, or small handheld remote kind of mobile things.”
It’s just a different angle. That makes sense.
I do find that I resonate with more of an iterative “MVP-like” style of product design, something incrementally correct. But you are also a technically-deep designer, which I’m not.
So I’m curious how you would distinguish between those needs: knowing the materials really deeply and intimately, versus knowing just enough to solve some problem and then move on.
I’m definitely more of the latter than the former. More of learning what you need to understand in order to move on, where this thing is a means to an end.
Now that said, I think earlier on we were talking a little bit about different facets and different ways of looking at hard skills. And I mentioned two different facets and I kind of dug into one of them. The other one I was talking about is that there’s a whole category of hard skills that I acquire because I’m simply curious about them.
I think when it comes to materials, there’s gotta be some things that just feel right. They just feel interesting. And with those things, I just go for it. I used to really try to understand computers. I found them fascinating, you know, because of the impact they’ve had, and the impact they continue to have. This idea that you send around some electrons and you get this video call that we’re in...it’s kind of fascinating.
How does this work on a very fundamental level, right? How do CPUs work? How does memory work? How do they communicate together? How are they physically built? This is one way of thinking and talking about materials, right?
None of these things are actually going to help me design apps better. Not really. So this is really a piece of your curiosity, driven by interest. It’s important to be open to those things.
Another example that is very different from the computer: a nice page curl animation. There was a point in time where you pursued that as a design, even just for fun. I think it’s important to be okay with pursuing the page curl, because you get to learn about the materials on the way. You get to learn about what it means to be smooth, right? What is animation? What is animation integration? “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that was a thing.”
And suddenly you pursued this page curl animation that no one’s going to care about. It’s not going to help you make an app, right? But then a couple of months later, a couple of weeks later, you’re working on some actual app or piece of software, and now you know that there’s this idea of animation integration.
For example, Instagram did some updates recently where you swipe a page back and they have this much more complicated animation integration. You can do stuff with that! If you don’t know that these things exist, you might not even have an idea in the first place. I think it was Albert Einstein who said something like “Intelligence is not displayed in knowledge, but in curiosity.”
It’s not about being intelligent or having an impact, but being curious.
Let’s go back to some company-level stuff.
There’s an interesting recurring theme that’s come up with these conversations, which is that the upper ranges of an IC path just become fuzzier and fuzzier.
And when we attempt to distinguish them, like the distinction between Staff and Principal, we need some clarity about what’s different. And what I’ve seen organizations do is make that distinction with things like mentorship, or team building, or more organizational design, or strategic product thinking.
And for this reason, when you talk to a lot of senior ICS and you ask, “what do you do these days?” They’re like: “I’m in meetings, I’m in Google docs, I’m in spreadsheets, I’m looking at data.” But I think for a lot of people who just like to make stuff, those upper levels introduce requirements that are antithetical to actually doing the work.
So I’m curious how you think about level requirements, specifically? If you could design a level requirements doc, how would you distinguish between people at these upper levels of Staff versus Principal versus whatever is above that?
Is it simply: they’re just better?
I think it’s a really interesting observation and synthesis of a problem that is very real.
In my experience, for someone who chooses to pursue IC, there is some aspect of “I want to make, and do.” If we simplify things, I want to actually hammer in the spike in the plank.
I think design as a profession, when you reach a certain level a couple of years in when you started having a little bit of responsibility, design becomes more and more about communication. And it is a lot about communication to begin with, right? But I think that becomes a cop-out to do more and more meetings, more and more of this kind of communication stuff, leading to a place where you’re just best suited to make high level decisions.
And I think that ends up not working out well. You get these anti-incentives because you’re like, “I want to get to the next level. But when I get there, it means that I’ll do less of what I enjoy doing.”
That’s not right. So you end up with this conundrum: either I feel more fulfilled on one side, and maybe higher compensation on the other side but I’ll be less happy. It’s just a shitty situation, I think, because you might end up feeling forced into that. You might end up feeling sort of like just, “Oh, I’m just gonna give up.”
I’ve certainly been a part of groups of people who have been trying to find a solution at companies like Dropbox and Figma. There were processes where we tried to define what it would mean for a designer to have a path to mastery within the company. Trying to find what are the responsibilities and expectations at different levels, beyond the basic stuff.
Was there anything you found in those conversations that you feel like more companies should adopt? Is there anything you found that worked really well as a thing for people to work on in order to level up?
I feel that just to have a definition of what this stuff means is a big part of the battle. In all of these cases, we didn’t actually have enough time to really figure it out. I think that it probably happens in a lot of companies where you can take a couple of months to work on this, but then you just have to put something into place. You can’t just spend years perfecting this. You can’t focus on this full time.
But I think the first thing is the separation of compensation levels and IC levels from the daily conversations and the daily sort of cultural aspects of design. To be concrete about it, if you had lunch with someone you wouldn’t have asked them, “Oh, what IC level are you?” That would be a weird thing to ask. Instead, you would ask them, “so what are you working on?”
And it was a different language for talking about how I think about myself. I think that separation seems to be really successful, we did the same thing at Dropbox that worked, and the same thing at Figma that worked too.
There are aspects to the actual definition of the roles where the bulk of possible improvements lie. Like when you have an IC level four. And let’s say you have 10 levels or something like that, a level four might be that you have an expectation to “influence other people in the team in a positive way.”
But now you have to be concrete about what that means. Otherwise, that might be misleading. And where these things are used is really important, too. Like, are these definitions of this path to mastery? Or are these just for HR conversations, you know?
What I think is more interesting and what seems to be an unsolved problem, is what it actually means for the individual, the person, and their own sort of internal experience. If you’re IC level five, and you’re feeling plateaued, and you ask “should I leave this company go work somewhere else? Should I switch to management to feel that I’m getting somewhere?” then clear information about the next level is important.
It gets a little bit dicey because that path seems to lead to mentorship. This idea of mentorship is something companies have sort of rallied around. But I think it leads people down that road where it’s like, “Okay, well, you’ve got the hard skills down. You’re good enough. Now you have to duplicate yourself. You have to mentor while at the same time satisfying all the previous requirements of doing the craft.”
And that is where I feel like it gets really muddy because not everybody who’s really good at the craft should be mentoring people. And so they’re forced into this brick wall where they have to ask if they’re going to stay at this level forever, or do they have to quit. And that sucks.
There’s an experience you have when you feel that you’re not plateauing anymore, which is when you realize that you just learned something. And getting to that, I think that’s the end goal, right?
For me, I have these skills, and I need to be more effective. So if we think about it for a second, that’s like using money or some hard investments from a very rational perspective, right?
For example, we have this person, “Brian,” he’s really freaking good. And then we have these other people; they’re almost as good as Brian, but not as good as Brian. How can we leverage “the Brian” to make everyone else a little bit better? That’s probably how you would think about objects and robots and computer programs and stuff like that. It’s probably how most of us think about computer programs actually, right?
I think this quickly crosses into the area of deep cynicism about this feeling incredibly extractive on the company’s part to say, “here’s a person who is so good at what they do. We now want to extract that talent to make slightly less good versions of them and not really consider what that person actually just wants to do on their own.”
Does that sound true or is that too cynical?
I think that’s true in reality. And that’s fine. I think that’s okay. I mean, a company’s purpose is usually to make money and be a business. Hopefully they’re doing this really respectfully and ethically. But, it’s also important for a company to make more money, to be more effective.
What is really interesting about your project is the more introspective part, the part that’s more about the self. The part of feeling better. And I just keep getting back at trying to think about if there’s just some way to feel that you’re learning more and more. Maybe there’s just diversifying and trying something new.
For example, a couple of years ago, I decided to really focus on typography. Actually I think the first typeface I made was in 2000 or ‘99 or something like that. So I’ve been, I’ve been interested in it, and dabbled in it, but I’d never made it a major pursuit.
And then a couple of years ago when I decided to give this a shot, what I found was a really, really long list of these amazing moments of learning. It really feels like I was not plateauing. I was sort of progressing and learning and changing. There’s this feeling of when I used knowledge for the first time to do something. That feeling, you know, it’s amazing.
And I think that feeling is what is defined, or had been present at all the points in time in my design career where it felt that I progressed and moved on.
That feeling is all that I chase. When you have it, it’s magical. And then it might take a while to get the next one. And maybe it’s a longer period of time in between each one the more you learn.
Exactly. That is so true. If you think about it logically, that makes sense too, right? The more you know about something, the less there is to learn about it. Assuming that there’s some close-to-finite set of things to learn about it.
What I really enjoy about software engineering or writing code or computer programs and stuff like that, is that that set of things to learn is not finite. It’s ever expanding.
Even if I spent a hundred percent of my time until the day I die, I wouldn’t have a chance to keep up with it. And so I think design is in a really different kind of boat where so much about design has to do with abstract concepts. It has to do with a specific scenario. The context and the body of knowledge, are so different.
With software engineering, every day you could learn something that other people find trivial, for the first time. You can get that quick fix all the time, constantly. With design, not so much.
I don’t know enough to know where I’m wrong, but to me, what you’ve just described is the reason why we’re having such a hard time building the design tool that also ships to production.
They’re just so different. Design is...the word you used, I think was situational or like specific to a particular problem that needs to be solved.
Whereas with software, there’s so many small and discreet things that we can learn. And it’s all about abstractions. With design you kind of have that, but it’s more about the application of abstractions to a very specific job or problem space. Trying to make those touch in the middle is where everyone’s spending a lot of money and time and energy, including Figma.
But that seems to be the point where things fall apart. Cool, we’ve built a tool that can turn your Figma code into React, but that’s not actually taking a user’s problem and converting it into a solution. We’ve just made it maybe a little bit faster to convert a rectangle into a div, right?
I think the problem there is that next week there’s gotta be something different. Because software, and the way we program computers is ever-changing changing at a very high pace. And it has been for a long time and it probably won’t stop changing at that pace. And then something like design is much, much slower moving. It probably does move, but it’s moving much, much slower. And they’re kind of incompatible on that layer.
So I think that’s the challenge with bridging stuff together.
One reason that people become less adventurous about learning new things throughout their life is that the older they get, and the more experience they have, it becomes easier to recognize how shitty you are at a thing when you’re first starting to learn.
How do you approach that frustration of being bad at a new thing when you’re starting to learn it?
Oh man, I just passed a threshold a long time ago.
I think there’s a correlation between how much I think I’m good at something versus how willing I am to share something.
So as an example: you’ve never drawn before, and you draw a thing, and you share it. And a whole bunch of people are like, “wow, this is super cool!” And you’re going to say “this could be a little bit better.” So you publish one thing maybe once a week. And people think it’s super cool. But eventually, you publish one thing every month, right? You do just as much work, but you choose to share less because you can now recognize what’s not right.
I met a lot of designers, especially through my work with Figma, who had this same story. “I used to share so much, and now I write on my homepage once a year.” At some point I recognized that happened to me and I was like, “Oh shit.”
And I thought about this for a long time. And at some point, I think I just started thinking that I need to trick myself here. So if I start a big blog post that takes me hours to write, it won’t happen because then I feel that it’s an investment. I feel that I’m going to judge myself more than others based on this being a big thing.
So instead I write a tweet with some spelling mistakes and then add another tweet to it. Or I write it down in a plain text file or put it on my desktop or something like that. Tricking myself in those ways has helped me. I separated the point of creating these things from the point of sharing them.
What have you learned about avoiding burnout?
It’s a really, really tricky thing. It’s like so many things, where at the very center of it is just learning about yourself. Like what drives you? What do you enjoy? What stresses you out? There’s just so much to learn here.
I’m really interested in this subject. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I spent a lot of time reading about it and learning from others about it. I think burnout in particular, I would characterize it as when nothing is interesting, but you still want to keep going.
I don’t have any stats to back this up, but it just seems like this from where I’m standing, that this happens more to us in our industry than in other industries. Perhaps it’s just getting into a place where you’re a professional designer, you just have to be a little messed up. You have to be really curious and interested in being a designer, and what design means, and what it can do for other people.
That just sets you up to be a little obsessive. Most of us also have free reign over our own personal time, right? So mornings, evenings, nights, weekends, if you just work nonstop that’s just like eating all the candy all the time. You’re going to feel ill. And that’s burnout on a very simplified level.
It will happen if you don’t prepare for it and avoid it. If you don’t apply the brakes, you will speed up and you will crash.
What do the brakes look like for you?
It’s like budget-y. I care a lot about time. I know that one of the things that causes a lot of stress for myself is time being so limited. I don’t think this is anything universal, but for me as a person, it is something that matters a lot. So I know that for me, budgeting time, even if it’s just 12 minutes, has helped me a lot.
If I’m going to work on a thing, deciding up front of how much time I’m willing to invest in this thing is helpful. I also try to work on a couple of different things at the same time. That helps me not to get too invested in one particular thing. It’s almost like, you know, when you’re a teenager and you have a crush on someone, and you can’t think of anyone else?
Yeah, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment.
Yeah. I think in a similar way that the effects are similar in work and side projects, where if I decide to make a thing, Just having a couple of things running at the same time, day-to-day work as well as side projects, helps.
I think it’s universal in a way; to always have a couple of things to work on so you don’t get too attached to any one thing. And that’s the key for being able to let go for a little while, or hand it off to a different person.
Maybe this isn’t unique to our industry, but it seems particularly problematic: this attachment of our identity to the things we work on. Like “Designer at Facebook,” or even just “Designer.” We ascribe so much identity to the thing that we do and the thing that we spend our time creating, that a failure to do that, or failure to do it well, is a failure of identity.
It’s almost like you feel that you might get kicked out of the tribe, you know?
Yeah, it’s a very real intrinsic human thing, the tribalism. You could fight it, or you can find ways to feel less prone to that, but perhaps a more healthy thing is to recognize that that is a natural thing to want to feel a part of groups of people.
The whole idea of tribalism is that there are other tribes, right? This is why I think the only way we will stop fighting is if there’s an alien invasion. Because then suddenly we can feel like one tribe of humans.
So it does make so much sense to me that people do identify as something. For some people, it’s important for them to feel like they’re part of a tribe. And for other people, the scope of it is different. But I think what is the same for all of us, is the fact that we do have this need to feel part of a tribe.
There’s nothing more dangerous for an organization than a person with terrible ideas whom everyone admires professionally.
When someone at a company with direct personal influence over its success or failure asks me for advice, I know that I’ve been able to build trust and do a good job as a designer.
Most of us also have free reign over our own personal time, right? So mornings, evenings, nights, weekends, if you just work nonstop that’s just like eating all the candy all the time. You’re going to feel ill. And that’s burnout on a very simplified level.