Looking back, for me 2018 — which felt like it lasted a decade! — was a year of transitions and connections, of not knowing and adapting to the unexpected, while seeking out those elusive moments of … discovery? achievement? fulfillment? Perhaps it’s simply the search for the most mundane thing of all…quite simply progress.
As Mad Men’s Don Draper said often, “move forward”. So I did.
I leaped from the relative safety of a full-time stable corporate job into the volatile, risky frontiers of UX consulting — again! As a much wiser friend said, as designers we’re never fully satisfied in our work, instead constantly shifting among various states of want and give, whether it’s projects or clients or companies or tools & skills. And so it was for me, this time trying to “do it all” in this crazy blend of engagements: advising & helping startups, contracting for a newly-found UX agency, my own indie consulting, continuing with UX conferences, and even flirting with a potential full-time teaching role. Throughout I was constantly proving myself, building credibility, developing trust, retelling “my narrative” — it’s a never-ending enterprise, this thing we do as designers. Rather painful, no? I concluded the year by re-affirming my design leadership position joining a startup as their head of UX whereby I’m shaping a new business strategy via design.
But what did I get out of all that activity in 2018? I’d like to share a few insights:
1 – You don’t always have to know what you want; sometimes you need to wander through the muck a bit to realize what you need and value. Relatedly, maybe (particularly if you’re stuck in a rut) the better way to know yourself IS actually to dive into something unknown — with eyes wide open, of course!
2 – Engaging with ambiguity while knowing that it might fail, that’s really hard and has a cost / risk factor that only you can reckon with. Everyone will try to pull & push you in different ways but only you should decide what’s right for you. And maybe, you need to be pressure tested a bit, to sense the edges of your comfort zones. Then, when it gets too much, simply walk away, knowing that you tried and hopefully learned, albeit the “learned lesson” may not present itself until much much later…
3 – You own your time. You always have the right to say “no” and walk away (professionally and gracefully). You are in charge of your narrative — both as a self-referential thing to affirm your value to yourself (indeed, in this business we’re often our own toughest critics!) and as a way to build relations with others who don’t know you, but willing to interact and understand what you stand for.
4 – That narrative is iterative and situational, necessarily so, given the context and personality and type of role or position held by that other person. (Note: your “narrative” is not some cynical “spin”, but more of a shaping of messages and how you project your self)
5 – Trust and credibility are multi-faceted concepts that evolve over time with different people, per contexts. Everyone has their own “way” of building that up with you (and vice versa). Getting a coffee or beer usually helps; truly get out of the office to help foster those ties into valuable relationships. And guess what — sometimes it just doesn’t work out; you’re both not seeing eye to eye no matter what. Keep moving forward!
6 – Explaining design and how / why you do what you do as a designer (and as a design leader) — that never stops. You will always be doing that! Keep iterating that narrative.
For me, looking ahead to 2019 (and perhaps beyond), I’m realizing that I’m moving even more away from traditional “UX” and much more into matters of leadership, strategy, even philosophy. So for my annual intentions (as opposed to resolutions, which sound so hard cut), I intend to do the following over time:
1 – Keep pushing on the notion of “meta-design” in my work: literally designing the conditions to enable good design to happen. This also extends the effects of design beyond “the screen” towards the organization and more.
2 – Keep evolving & refining my “playbook” as a design leader per insights from non-UX leaders, from Sales, Engineering, Product, Marketing, etc. What are their perspectives and how can they inform my approaches? There is a vital interdependency to our work that I deeply aim to foster more of.
3 – Keep advocating for a systemic, framework-level point of view to wicked problems, and really dig into that ambiguity in a cross-functional manner. So, this naturally requires helping others get comfortable with being uncomfortable ;-)
And ultimately I intend to keep testing and evolving my own “dynamic balance” (per the classic Eames diagram) of competing yet cooperative aims and situations and opportunities. It will be another interesting and fun year!