Archives for February 2016

February 29, 2016 - Comments Off on A Working Theory of Balance

A Working Theory of Balance

I've been thinking about a phrase that I hear quite frequently: "work-life balance." The phrase comes up most often when people are taxed beyond their abilities by their job and looking to gain some amount of reprieve from the constant demand of work pressures. While some are on a mission to achieve it in some Quixote-esque quest, others swear that it's a myth of a bygone generation.

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I've experienced the nirvana state of work-life balance, but it's something that I chased after from time to time. For fleeting moments I've felt that both my work and non-work lives are both somewhat healthy and satisfying. It rarely lasts, however, as something inevitably occurs that throws things out of whack. In addition to my own struggles, I've noticed that other people are always making their own shifts and alterations to their priorities. As a result, I've developed a metaphor that has helped me put things in some measure of perspective.

Picture If You Will…

…one of those tool wall peg boards laid flat on a table. Pick a point in the center, and then put a short length of dowel several holes out from the center on each axis. When you're done, you'll have your center point, plus one peg each on the north, east, south, and west axes. Next, go intro your refrigerator and grab one of those rubber bands off the heads of broccoli that you have in there. Stretch the rubber band around the four pegs.

Hopefully you have a mental picture of that odd contraption now. In this metaphor, each axis is a thing that takes a portion of your time and energy. Your professional life is to the north, personal relationships to the south. Interests to the west, obligations to the east. This is how it plays out: say for example that you have a lot of professional demands on your time. Move that peg up one or two from the center. The rubber band probably stretches to accommodate. Next, say that you land that big client but need to put in some extra time to make them happy. You can move the peg up a couple more, but the rubber band might not stretch. So you move the some configuration of the other pegs in towards the center to give you more wiggle room. As your demands and performance expand north, the other aspects of your life begin to contract. Ultimately you can only reconfigure the pegs so much, and you have a limit to the amount of things that you can handle. Our time and energy are finite after all.

I find this metaphor more appealing than the way that people typically talk about the binary work-life relationship for a few reasons. First off, it exposes the connectedness of the other aspects of our lives. Second, it allows for a certain amount of flexibility and give. We've all gone through those times in our lives what something was all consuming, so we know that sometimes everything else has to give for a while. Lastly, I like that the flexibility of the band gets less and less as the distance between pegs becomes more extreme. This really mirrors the tension that often arrises when our live become filled with so many things that we find it hard to cope.

The Work Relationship Interest Obligation Stretch

The more I chase after it, the more that I think that the work-life balance is a myth. I do recognize that I go through periods of heightened professional demands or of focusing intensely on personal relationships. It's not always easy to recognize that I'm making the choice to focus my life in these ways and that other aspects will suffer accordingly, but it's something that I'm working on acknowledging.

What have your struggles been like to achieve some level of balance? I'd be interesting in hearing your thoughts, so drop a line.

February 22, 2016 - Comments Off on Tips for New Designers Part 3: Portfolio Reviews

Tips for New Designers Part 3: Portfolio Reviews

Second only to the big client presentation or project launch, portfolio reviews are one of the most stressful experiences that designers open themselves up to. Regardless of whether it’s an informal review or as part of a job interview, having another designer review your work is a moment of vulnerability. Your challenge is to take that difficult experience and make it a positive one. Having done my share of presenting work and reviewing work, I put together a short list of guidelines for new designers as they get started with portfolio reviews.

What Do You Want?

Going into the review you'll want to have a clear idea of what you hope to get out of it. This may be something that you discuss with the reviewer ahead of time, or it may not. In the case of a job interview this should be fairly clear, but in a less formal setting it may be helpful to give the reviewer some context to how they analyze the work. Regardless of how up front you are regarding your motives, try to steer the conversation and discussion of the work towards this goal. If things start to veer off course, bring the discussion back around.

Do Your Homework

In most cases, the portfolio review will be a result of your networking efforts. This is great because it means that you're not entering into the conversation cold. Hopefully you have a rapport with the person who will be looking at your work. Try to gauge what type of work they respond to or what type of work they might be looking for. Try to position your portfolio in a way that shows that type of work.

In addition to helping to determine your presentation, learning more about the reviewer and their company shows a level of investment on your part. Being able to speak knowledgeably about their world says that you give a damn. Giving a damn sets you apart from those that don't, immediately giving an edge.

Fortunately it's not difficult to find information on people these days. Many companies have "Team" pages, and LinkedIn—or even a simple web search—can be a valuable asset. Following them on Twitter or Dribbble may be another way to see what they are interested in, though I wouldn't recommend following them on all social networks possible to avoid coming off as a stalker.

Run the Show

A common mistake that I see new designers making during reviews is giving the control over to the reviewer. As the designer, you absolutely want to control the narrative about the work. This allows you to frame the discussion, make sure that you hit on the important points, and get what you want from the interaction. Under no circumstances should you give the book, website, or presentation to the reviewer unless it's completely unavoidable. If this happens, it's guaranteed that things will go sideways. Stay in control and keep things on track.

Totally, Completely, Absolutely Unapologetic

Once you're in the middle of the review, make no excuses. This is not the time explain how, if you'd had more time, things would've gone differently; or if the client had any sense the project would've turned out better. Nor should you say that the project is old and looks a little dated. You can think those things, but under no circumstances should those thoughts cross your lips. The work is yours and you need to own it, warts and all. If you aren't happy with some aspect of the project, take the time leading up to the review and fix it. Not doing so and apologizing or making excuses during the review reflects very poorly on you, so avoid it at all costs.

Put a Bow On It

After the review is complete, make sure to thank the reviewer profusely for their time even if it didn't go as well as you would've liked. Even in an interview setting, gratitude for the feedback and time spent discussing work goes a long way. Before you leave, also ask what the next steps should be. After an interview, this can give you an idea about how long the decision process will take or who you should follow up with. If it's a less formal review, you can inquire about keeping in touch with the reviewer or ask who else might be good to talk to. Always try to leave with an action item.

After the review, send a thank you note of some kind. An email is often sufficient, if you have the reviewers address. The note doesn't have to be long or take you much time to write, but you should thank the reviewer for their time and let them know that you will follow through on whatever the action item you discussed was.

If hope that you found this guide helpful and that it eased the review process. While it touches on some high-level items that would make a portfolio review a good experience for you as well as the reviewer, you'll also get better at it with practice. Frequently showing your work to people will just make it easier. Indeed, talking about our work is a critical part of being a designer. If you have additional points about what I missed or have a chance to put these ideas into practice, I'd like to hear what you think.

This is part 3 in a 3-part series for new designers. If you missed them, the first part is about putting together a portfolio and the second was about networking.

February 8, 2016 - Comments Off on Tips for New Designers Part 2: Networking

Tips for New Designers Part 2: Networking

Following up on last week's piece, the next logical step for young designers is to get started with networking. My first thought was to jump right to the interview, but there’s often a good amount of time and energy that has to be put in before the opportunity of an interview presents itself. While I certainly won’t profess to be an expert at networking, I have done it for a while and have learned a few things that have worked for me. This approach is probably most applicable to people who are more introverted, since that’s my experience. I imagine that extroverts have a much easier time with networking, and I definitely envy those with more social fluidity than I possess. The skills to be a successful networker are important, however, and flex similar muscles to those that designers use in professional settings?—?such as meeting new clients and giving presentations.

Start With Your Portfolio

As with many things, the difficult part of networking is getting started. It’s helpful to get going if you’re just coming off of?—?or at least are in the process of?—?putting together your portfolio. Through that process, you’ve spent a good amount of time with your work, and you have a sense of how it represents the type of work that you want to do. Take that impression and translate that to the design world around you. Ask yourself questions like, “Who does the type of work that I want to do?” and “Where do people with similar interests socialize?” You might not know those answers already, but that’s where search engines come in handy. Start with queries like, “web design meetup” or look on social media, and follow that path down the rabbit hole. See what’s available in your area, or maybe even the next closest big city. Sometimes travel is involved, but that may be a price that you’ll have to consider.

Make Your First Moves Online

It's never been easier to meet like-minded designers than it is now. It's almost impossible to be a practicing designer these days without having an online presence. Use that to your advantage and try to find where the conversations are happening online. Whether it's on social media or work sharing sites like dribbble, there are people doing the type of work that you want to do online. Follow them, see what they’re up to, and have a conversation with them if you think that you can do that in a way that doesn’t come off as sycophantic or trollish. Asking questions is a great way to do that, as designers are often eager to share about their work and process. Following people is an effective way to stay on top of developments in the industry, and sometimes surfaces in-person networking opportunities. Practice that vital designer skill of listening to become receptive to the discussion that’s happening around you.

With so much of the design world happening online, the people who you interact with can lead to friendships, partnerships, or recommendations. If they're located in near you or in a place that you're traveling to, there's always the chance that you can meet up in person to talk.

Be Strategic About Your Focus

It can be intimidating to attend a new meetup, but I would suggest starting there when it comes to meeting people in person. Especially if you’re new to the field or in a new area, it’s helpful to see what the lay of the land is without the pressure of forced 1-on-1 interactions. For that reason, I would suggest finding a meetup that seems like it might be of interest and give it a shot before reaching out to individuals or more exclusive groups.

Networking has a cost. The first and most obvious one is the time involved. Whether it’s finding the event, getting to the event, or just the time spent there, there’s always a cost. The second one which introverts feel particularly acutely is tax on your social energy. In contrast to extroverts, introverts find social situations draining, which takes energy away from other tasks and necessitates downtime. Given that cost, it makes sense to prioritize the meetups that you go to. Most likely, there will be another session in a month or two, so you can always make note of it and attend the next one.

Navigating The Social Seas

Once you’ve done the work to figure out which meetup you want to attend, you’ve gotten there, walked in the door and gotten your name tag, there’s always the rather awkward moment of figuring out who to talk to first. If you bring some friends with you (maybe ones that you’ve met through online networking), this can be somewhat easier. Often times it’s easier to work into conversations that are already in progress that way. Should you bring some friends along, make sure that you don’t spend the whole time talking to them exclusively. Meeting new people is the point, after all. Try to incorporate people who you don’t know into the conversation, or work your friend group into other people’s conversations. If you don’t have friends along, there’s more pressure to insert yourself into conversations that you aren’t necessarily invited into. That’s really tough, and something that I struggle with. Keep in mind that we’ve all been there, and that everybody else in the room is there to meet other people. Inserting yourself into conversations is a moment of vulnerability, but it does get easier with practice. You will also find that you have an easier time if you approach the situation as authentically as you can. Own who you are and don’t feel pressure to put on airs to impress people. Again, not the easiest thing to do in practice but work at it and you’ll get there. It sounds kind of silly, but I’ve even given myself goals of interacting with X amount of people before leaving the event.

What you get out of in-person networking depends a lot on the event as well as how you approach it. I’ve been to my share of events that feel a bit like a feeding frenzy, where designers become sharks circling to few people who might be hiring. I’ve been to other events that are really just about shop talk or a purely social gathering. Most events fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but it’s usually best to not go with the hard sell. Try to get to know people and express a genuine interest in their life or work before jumping in and asking for a portfolio review or interview. Having been on both sides of the equation, people tend not to respond well to others that are just using them to get ahead. You need to offer something, even if it’s as small a token of validation. Regardless, it's always good to have a business card that you can give to people who you meet so that they can drop you a line or check out your portfolio online (because it's looking good by now, right?). Also don't be afraid to ask people for their card so that you can take the initiative and reach out to them first.

Reel Them In

Hopefully you’ve been able to tap into your online and in person resourcefulness by this point, and parlayed that into some sort of introduction to a person who is working in an area that you’d like to be in. Don’t let that opportunity window close, and make sure to follow up with this person before too much time has passed. The dating rules definitely don’t apply here, and the fresher your introduction to this person is when your email lands in their box the better. As with the in-person interaction, try not to ask too much or start with the hard sell. It’s up to you to suss out the situation, but a coffee meeting or informal interview can be a great start. If you’ve done some research and they have an open role that you would be interested in, you could inquire about that specifically. This sensitivity to the situation is something that you’ll learn over time, and eventually you’ll get a knack for it.

Ultimately your goal is to set up 1-on-1 meeting with the person where you can show them your work and ask questions. That's a whole other topic though, which we'll jump into next week.


This is the second in a series for new designers getting started in the field. For part 1 about putting together a portfolio, head over here.

February 1, 2016 - Comments Off on Tips for New Designers Part 1: Portfolios

Tips for New Designers Part 1: Portfolios

Getting feedback, whether solicited or not, isn’t always easy. It’s can be especially difficult when it is directed at the work that you’ve put so much time and care into creating. Given that external feedback is so central what it means to be a designer, it’s best to develop a thick skin early. Throughout my career, I’ve been received a lot of feedback on my work, and I’ve also had the chance to look at the work of a lot of designers just getting their start in the field. In the portfolios of less experienced designers, there are some commonalities that I often see that get in the way of receiving feedback on the actual work.

Less is Always More

As a young designer, I wanted to show everything that I had created. It’s a temptation that I see from a lot of other designers, and it’s completely understandable. You want it to be clear that you’re capable of a broad range of work. You want to convey that you’re flexible, and have the ability to pick things up as you go along. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be at the expense of quality. It also makes it difficult for the portfolio reviewer to see a clear voice in the designer. “Voice” in this instance doesn’t necessarily mean style, but instead refers to that special thing that this designer brought to the solution. If it’s difficult to see that in a portfolio, it’s difficult to say what this person will bring to the table on client projects.

The next logical question is how how many projects to show. There’s really no hard and fast rule for this one in my book, but for a junior designer I’d like to look at about 6–8 projects, give or take. If there are some extensive projects, it could certainly be less. I could even imagine a scenario where showing a single, very in-depth project would do the trick. But which projects to pick? Ah, we’ll get to that one.

Except When More is More

In terms of number of projects to show, less is the way to go. That doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting a portfolio that is light or lacking in substance. Very much the opposite, and this really gets to the heart of the challenge. For inexperienced designers especially, the reviewer isn’t as concerned with the outcome of the final project. What they really want to see is the thinking behind the work. They want to understand what the problem was, how the exploration was done, what the concept is, and how that concept was executed throughout every element of the project.

How this is conveyed is really the biggest challenge with putting together a portfolio. A lot of the time you can offer some voice over as you walk the reviewer through the projects, but that shouldn’t be the only option. Try to approach putting together your portfolio as if you weren’t present to narrate through the work—as is the case on a website—?so that you can illustrate the key talking points in other ways.

Presentation is Half of The Battle

This really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to you as a designer, but the way you present the work is critical. It says a lot about the care that goes into the work, and it also sets the tone. It’s important that you are able to create a beautiful logo, but it’s also important how you show that identity in application. Even with digital artifacts, showing context can help a lot with giving reference to the viewer. Of course, there’s a careful balance to strike (I’m looking at your severely skewed iPhone comps).

Fake It, Even If They Didn't Make It

This lesson is the one that took me the longest to learn personally. The point is that when it comes to your portfolio, you should always show the work that you did in the best possible light. If the client mandated changes to the design that were bad decisions or you ran out of time to give the project that final polish, this is your opportunity to make things right. Show the design as you would have wanted it to live in an ideal world. When presenting the work to a reviewer, you still have to be honest about the state of the work that you’re showing. You don’t necessarily have to offer that information without being asked, but if questioned you should absolutely be honest and be prepared to defend the presented version of the work without dragging the client through the mud. Ultimately though, the worst thing is having to make excuses for how the work turned out.

Don't Kill Your Darlings. Keep Them Close.

Deciding what to pick is usually the first step of putting together a portfolio, but it’s a decision that you’ll likely have to revisit frequently. The reason being is that early in your career, it’s best to tailor the types of projects that you’re showing to the interviewer. If you’re interviewing at a company that specializes in web design, it might not be the best tactic to go in with a portfolio that focuses on branding. Exercise your best judgement here, but always tailor the presentation to the audience.

Start by compiling a list of the work that you could show, and narrow it down to work the would be more relevant to the reviewer. From that shorter list, chose the work that you’re really passionate about. This will most likely result in a manageable list for you to figure out how to package. Depending on the type of review, you may also want to put in a wildcard project or two that you really love. Maybe it’s for a non-profit that you believe in or it was a project that came together really well and you feel it really represents your vision. Ultimately it’s your call, but your belief in the work will come through during the review.

In The Next Episode

Those four things are the biggest pointers that I can give to designers just starting to put together a portfolio. Having the work is just one part of the equation, however. Next week I'll talk about bringing it home in the interview.

Anything really important that I missed in the list above? Drop a line.