Thursday, August 18, 2011

In-House Designer Survival Guide

I wrote this a while back when I was revisiting the horrors of some of my past jobs as an in-house designer. I still found it amusing, so I thought I'd share. I was going to expand upon it and turn it into a survival guidebook, but I lack focus on the best of days, plus it makes an interesting blog. Enjoy.

Step 1: Forget Everything
  1. You just spent a crap ton of money on a degree that got you this job. Now you must forget all those rules they taught you. Sure, you can try to hold onto them, fight, state rules from your design books to defend the guidelines of good design, but they don't care. They want a circus tent on the cover of that brochure that is exploding with clowns, jugglers, elephants, students, math books, employees, quasars, the full mathematical value of pi, and peppermint patties. They don't care that this brochure is about lawyer education. Their demands will never make sense in regards to your training.

Step 2: Vent. Vent. Vent. Vent. Vent.
  1. Start a journal documenting your trials
  2. Find coworkers who also share your frustration and won't tattle on you
  3. Find other creative means of venting using your natural born talents
    • create a voodoo doll in the likeness of that which gives you the most grief
    • create a bullseye with your boss' face in the target
    • paste your coworker's face onto a punching bag
    • Work in subliminal messages into your designs
    • think of your own ideas that are a million times better and create them
    • or pick up a hobby or side job that doesn't rely on taking a lot of "critiques"

Step 3: Pretty is a 4-letter word.
  1. They know it and you're about to know it. As soon as you hear this word, put your guard up. It's a clear flag that they're about to bash everything you just worked so hard on and are so proud of. Even the way your coworker says it sounds like a insult, that the word is dripping with slime and stupidity. You can almost hear their inner-monologue in those two syllables, "all you do is make things pretty."
  2. A sample phrase might be very similar to, "It's pretty, but... I really don't link the photos you used and I hate this font and you can't really read this when I threw it on my floor and stood across the room and looked at it--so make that bigger. Also, I really don't like the way..."

Step 4: Detach yourself
  1. You are not your work. This thing you've created is a bastardization of everything you were taught not to do in school. You're bending over backward to meet irrational demands. This is an impossible task.
  2. Also your coworkers will instantly assume that you are some delicate flower that will wilt and/or crumble at the mere mention of a critique of your work. This furthers their belief that "all you do is make things pretty", so detach yourself and make sure they know you are not offended by their changes.

Step 5: They never say what they mean to say
  1. Yes, they might SAY "Make THIS bigger!" But what they really mean is that they want more emphasis on THIS and less emphasis on everything else.
  2. Instead of making things bigger, try changing the white space around a bit. Make everything else a wee bit smaller. The last thing you want is a 100+pt slogan and logo on the cover of your brochure/website/business card.

Step 6: Don't give back drafts (if you can help it)
  1. If forced into a cyclical proofreading process, do not give back a marked-up draft with the new draft.
  2. If you do give back the new draft with the marked-up draft, then the individual will see that you aren't fulfilling all their irrational demands and can easily compare font sizes to see that you didn't actually make it bigger. Regardless of whether it now looks visually correct to them, they will think you deliberately disregarded what they wrote and send it right back to you with the same demands, that or they'll confront you directly and you'll have to feign innocence.
  3. Of course, if the person doesn't make any illogical demands, you can give back their draft.
  4. Also, be sure to double, triple, quadruple check their edit requests to make sure you got everything important (e.g. names, dates, phone numbers, etc.)

Step 7: You can't say no.
  1. Okay, sure. Go ahead. Say no to one of their ridiculous requests. Write down on a piece of paper exactly what you said no to and keep it in a highly visible location. A month from now, I want you to refer to your slip of paper and let me know exactly how well that "no" went for you.
  2. I have learned that people who make "helpful suggestions" tend to be the people who have the delicate feelings about their ideas and will crumble into a murderous tantrum if they don't get their way. It might be worse. They might be the plotting types that gather up a lynching party and visit your castle late and night in hopes of burning your creation to the ground.
  3. Instead of saying no, try the helpful diversion. "Oh, that's a great idea Sally! Yes, I too love dolphin tattoos on ankles and... writing that down right now so I don't forget--THERE!... Yes! I will definitely include your awesome idea in the mockups for the new cover design of Knitting Quarterly." Do not include her design, feign innocence if she remembers.

Step 8: They don't know what they want.
  1. They might even say this to you. "I don't know what I want, but I know I don't want that. I'll know what I want when I see it." They don't know what they want. Just keep doing what makes you happy and hope that you get paid overtime.

Step 9: Multiple designs are a waste of time.
  1. Creating multiple mockup designs for them to choose from is a complete and total waste of time. If you create multiple designs, only show the design you like best. If you like two really, really well, then show both.
  2. Do not show them designs that you do not like. This just gives them the opportunity to choose the one you hate and, worst of all, you'll have to work on that design for the next few months.

Step 10: Learn to manipulate.
  1. Everyone is already doing it all around you. If this is the only way to get something halfway decent in your portfolio, then by all means, start pulling those strings.
  2. I found that secretively pitting two rivals against one another worked best. Always stay on everyone's best side and learn to push the blame.
  3. You don't make decisions--someone always told you to do it that way.

Step 11: Freelance
  1. Amazingly you'll have more freedom as a freelancer but be sure to bill hourly.
  2. Flat-rate fees are for suckers. Be sure to charge them for every stupid change they make.
  3. Best of all, they aren't hovering over your shoulder as you make a change to the design.

Step 12: Find a new job.
  1. One where there is the least amount of soul-sucking going on.
  2. Take advantage of sick leave and "doctor appointments" to go to interviews.
  3. If worst comes to worst and there are no jobs out there, there are always mental health days.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Providing Justifications for Design

I loved Geometry in high school. It was easily my favorite mathematics course. In Geometry you would be required to provide a justification rule for each step in solving a geometric puzzle. The awesome part was solving the puzzle. The not awesome part was remembering all those justifications.

When designing a new interface with an agile team you often have to shoot down ideas quickly so that the wrong things aren't built two hours later. In order to shoot down an idea, your team mates will want to know why. Eventually they'll just learn not to ever suggest a drop-down menu as a quick fix. They might not remember that one would never have a drop down menu for an unexpected list of items, but they'll remember that you give them some demon-possessed glare every time they suggest it.

Now, in our guts we all know these rules, they become instincts. Designer survival instincts, as I like to call them. However, when working with a team, you have to instantly recall these rules. Maybe not the exact rule as you read it on, but at very least the reason. And if you can't provide that reason within .75 seconds of them saying "Why?" to your "NO!", then they'll over-rule you and you've failed your users.

Just like you would fail a question in a Geometry quiz. And if you missed the first justification for a design and you have to build lots more architecture around that element, then you just might as well have failed on all accounts.

Granted, Agile is purportedly able to make many changes over time, but I have yet to see this be an actual result of this form of development. Employers tend to use it more heavily as an excuse to get half-assed things out the door in a portion of the time it would take to do things correctly.

Sadly, I don't have a solution to this problem, other than to highly recommend knowing your design rules and guidelines and be prepared to defend your decisions quickly and with justification. The good news is that eventually your team mates will begin to trust your finely tuned designer survival skills and you'll be spending less time defending your work and more time designing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tribulations of a design professional in the job market

The Situation
This is my second time in the job market as a designer and yet again I have come upon the sad fact that there is a gap in the career help that is offered. Some topics are not geared toward the design professional, and others are just plain-out lacking.

While it is a truth that lots of designers are wary of career services for just this reason, the fact is that if you open your mind LOTS of the advice from people CAN be applied to the design profession. Even where there doesn't seem to be any application, a creative mind like ours can find that overlap where there didn't appear to be one before.

The Dilemna
But there is one place that try as I might, I could not find a way to use the suggested method in regards to my design background --- accomplishment statements.

What are accomplisment statements?

You may know these as STAR ( Situation, Task, Action, Result) statements --- or --- CAR (perhaps this is most widely used in motor centric Detroit area - I don't know) anyways CAR (Challenge, Action, Result) statements. And the standard suggested method for them is to frame your accomplishment by stating what your particular action did for the company in quantifiable terms. Now HOW is a designer to quantify an accomplishment of a nicely designed web page, or a visually pleasing pamphlet??

My designs accomplished what ...???
I looked long and hard on the internet to see if I could find design examples of how to do this, and I talked with my career coach, and the closest that we could come up with as a result was "...satisfied design requirements". Not much of a seller that one, is it? Basically just sounds like you did what you were told. Yet how does one quantify the benefit of a usable site versus one which only served to confuse? How does one quantify highlighting the information which is needed when it is needed so the user doesn't have to hunt and peck around to find what they need to know? And if there is any quantifiable terms, say - site traffic increased 20%, sales went up 10%, users to site didn't drop off after the first frustrating page, when does this information ever filter down to the lowly designer who toiled away on it.

If you are lucky enough to be in a small company where there is not a layer of beaurocracy or administrators then perhaps you will be enlightened with this information. However, if you are in a large company, usually only the people that the administration thinks should know this, gets this information.

So what are we to do?

I tried putting stuff like "made our current site more user friendly" into my accomplishment statements, but that is hard for HR and hiring people to translate into the question "How can this candidate add value to my company?" which is basically what they are trying to find out.

Well, maybe not an answer, but more of a question, or a challenge to for all us designers to ponder. Basically, I am still stumped ... but I think that in the design community perhaps we can come up with our own answer to this that can satisfy hiring professionals and our professional pride in our work.

But we are not out of the woods yet...

Once we figure out the accomplisment statement, there are still more questions a design professional in the job hunt would like to know.... say, for example: when and how to present your portfolio to the best advantage during an interview, how to highlight signature pieces, how to include pieces done for a client without releasing confidential information? If one is a contractor with the usual bumpy employment history of being your own marketer, boss, and employee - how do you show that in the best light? How to design a really snazzy resume which doesn't look awful when it is scanned into someone's system?

There are probably lots of other little bits out there that could be addressed for specifically design professionals, but that we have to figure out ourselves.

Luckily we are an inventive bunch and so far have managed to get by on our wits, which are not insignificant, and the strength of our work - also not insignificant. But it is getting harder, and harder to stand out, especially in the growing market of professionals out there all looking at the same job. How to keep our edge?

Hopefully someone will hear the call, someone will post or train or teach us on the best practices for looking for a design job.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Shopping at Amazon

I had squirreled away several amazon gift cards and decided one lazy afternoon to put them to good use (video games and books, of course). I got to the final checkout screen and realized I had a few more dollars I could spend. I just wanted a little button to continue shopping, but amazon removes all their standard options to leave the checkout process. Finally I see this little tiny link all the way at the bottom of the screen.

Clearly the risk of losing a sale is greater than the risk of gaining additional sales. I was, at the very least, happy that they included the option (albeit in a very inconvenient location).

Friday, January 28, 2011

Finding Holes in Design Education

I happened upon a listing at a local college for a Graphic Arts Instructor. Reading through the description, it asked for a sample lesson plan. That got me thinking back to my own education and experiences as a Multimedia assistant. The classes were a lot of fun and I learned a lot, but I still felt unprepared for my release into the wild.

A decade later I can easily see the holes in my classes. The things I would have done differently. We had communication classes, but those classes were not about communicating design. We had writing classes, but those classes were not about writing about design. We debated law, but not the laws of design. I knew the skills, but not how to defend my work.

Everyone has an opinion on design. Some people are extra nice and say everything looks great. These people are not helpful. Some people are extra entitled and strong arm you into making changes which you deem as grave offenses against design. Some people trust you to make the right decision and inquire as to why you made the choices you did. They then point out a flaw to your logic and give you the opportunity to fix your own mistake. These last people are usually designers.

I had a manager who had not a creative bone in his body. He did not understand design or the design process. He would frequently ask for detailed explanations on the design process and why those were needed. He would look a web page and consider it done because there was text showing up on it. He could not see what could be, the stumbling blocks a user might face, or how a few minor adjustments could make the page better. He's a much more common occurrence in wild than I'd care to admit.

If I was given free reign over a design major, I don't think too many would enjoy my boring communication classes, but I'd assure them the confidence and capability to defend their work in the wild.

Truth or Dare

The truth:
Newly unemployed and not wanting to go stir crazy in the cold winter months of January, nor did I want my finely honed design instincts to dull from lack of real social interaction or daily design challenges, I gathered some creative resources (close designer types) and asked if they'd like to contribute to a blog about the design world. They did, and this was born of our creativity at large. Actually, Jen first suggested the idea, I just added the elbow grease.

The dare:
The name of this blog stems from an interaction I had with a former coworker. He was responsible for organizing learning seminars. For each brochure he would suggest the title "Bigger and Better Than Ever!" He once suggested the very same slogan for a "1st Annual" (also his idea) seminar. He was a lawyer and swore with a smile that it was technically accurate. He made more money than me and was old enough to be my grandfather. Who was I to argue?