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NYC Principal, Creative Director Joined about 4 years ago
Cool, Ravi, I look forward to meeting you.
You’re welcome! Thank you for reading it and sharing these kind words. All the best.
Your comments have touched my heart. Thank you so much, Ali. :)
I remember you very well. You asked about my mom, who had recently passed away. How are you doing? :)
Being able to write well (and talk well) is definitely a design superpower.
Hey, Matthew. This was wonderful.
No new questions have come in, so </zeldman>.
Nice to meet you, and hey to Eduardo! :)
First I’ll answer generally, and then specifically (i.e. how I do it with my specific things).
Generally speaking, you have to prioritize what’s most important to you, let go of the small stuff, learn to say no, and stop working on side projects or ask for help to keep them going.
In my case, I ask for help. And it works.
So. I’m a full-time dad and a full-time (and busy!) Automattician, and those are my full-time, day-in, day-out focuses. The rest is possible by having great teams, trusting them to do what they do, and checking in with them as frequently as need be.
For An Event Apart, there’s a lot of editorial work to be done choosing the best speakers, helping them hone in on the most relevant topics, and arranging those topics editorially in each AEA conference. I can’t hand that work off. It needs me. I email and meet weekly with staffer/producer/editorial consultant Toby Malina and partner/co-founder Eric Meyer, and reach out to speakers via email and calls as needed. The billions of hours of additional work needed to mount a successful conference are handled entirely by the brilliant Marci Eversole. I trust her with my life.
The conference enhances the knowledge I’m able to bring to my work at Automattic, since I’m constantly interacting with and learning from some of the very best designers, developers and strategists in our industry. Automattic is an open source company dedicated to democratizing publishing and sharing knowledge. An Event Apart is about sharing knowledge about the open web. The values are in sync, and the time I put into An Event Apart, although it’s done outside of Automattic business hours, is in some ways, conceptually, also work I do for Automattic.
A List Apart functions because of the brilliance and hard work of our crew, including Aaron Gustafson, Michelle Kondou, Brandon Gregory, Mica McPheeters, Dougal Macpherson, Tatiana Mac, Adrian Roselli, Rachel Andrew, Dezzie Garcia, Sara Wegman, and many other extraordinarily gifted people (all listed on that Masthead), who review submissions, work with authors to fine-tune them, and manage the many other tasks that go into creating a low-volume, high-quality web publication. All I need to do is read the article drafts and weigh in on the discussions as to their merits. That’s something I’d do for pleasure anyway. It takes less time than I spend watching TV or going to the gym—because the team is that good, and their collective intelligence is that powerful.
Since moving from our old platform to WordPress (with the incredibly able assistance of Tiffany Bridge and the Automattic Special Projects team, which is how I fell in love with that team, and which led indirectly to my taking a job there), we’ve also been able to bring our Italian publication edited by creative director Valeria Brigatti in-house, instead of treating it as an external publication. Again, all I had to do was say, “Yes, please.”
A Book Apart is, I think, an important addition to the canon of great books for people who design, write, and code. I co-founded it with Jason Santa Maria, and in the beginning, we were very busy setting it up, but today, and for several years, CEO Katel LeDu has done EVERYTHING. Jason and I weigh in a book proposals and give Katel our thumbs-up when she proposes big changes to how the company works, but it’s really all Katel and her staff and consultants at this point.
I could not run the three Aparts myself. I could not even run one of them myself. Finding good partners. People worthy of trust. People with talent and work ethics you can depend on. That’s the secret.
To some extent, you can’t. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others.
Designers are competitive, and we often suffer from imposter anxiety, so it’s easy to see the many flaws in our own work, and to see nothing but beauty and genius in someone else’s. No matter what we achieve, it’s never good enough. Why can’t I make something as great as what so-and-so made?
In some ways this competitiveness is healthy: it pushes us to work harder, do more, not be satisfied with our B- efforts when we might really have an A+ effort in us if we work a little harder.
In other ways, it’s just self-defeating thought patterns we subject ourselves to how we grew up. We should stop doing that to ourselves if we can. For instance, just as an example: Why does X design better icons than I do? Maybe because X is better at designing icons and I’m better at figuring out customer journeys. No one since Leonardo DaVinci has been great at everything. Even Mozart couldn’t dribble a basketball.
Let’s recognize and be proud of the things we’re good at, not just beat ourselves up over the parts where we’re less gifted. Let’s use the confidence we gain from acknowledging how good we are at customer journeys to either give us the courage to practice and improve our icon design, or the honesty to collaborate with an icon designer who’s not as good as we are at customer journeys. Design is a job and it’s also a team effort.
Your question is fairly open-ended and there are many other ways I could answer. For instance, your question might be, How can I, the only woman on this team, stop comparing my position and salary to those of my colleagues (if all of them earn more money and have better titles). And the answer, there, is that you shouldn’t stop comparing. You should fight for your rights.
Or the question might be, how can I stop comparing myself to my favorite designer? And the answer might be, you may not have to do so. Maybe your favorite designer does the kind of work you know you will be doing in two years. When you study their work, it’s a form of apprenticeship. So acknowledge that and use it, and get better. You can even copy what they’ve done (as long as you don’t publish it—copy privately, for your own educational purposes only). When you’ve mastered that other designer’s voice, you can put the obsession behind you and begin to create your own unique voice. (Which is probably more awesome anyway.) Hope this helps!
Blue beanie represent! Thanks for asking, Chris.
Back in May, 2018, I wrote The Cult of the Complex in A List Apart to express my frustration with the feeling that toolchains were replacing know-how, and that web making was becoming a d*ck-measuring competition: “If we wish to get back to the business of quietly improving people’s lives, one thoughtful interaction at a time, we must rid ourselves of the cult of the complex. Admitting the problem is the first step in solving it.”
My theory was that chasing the new for its own sake, and to prove how good you are at your job, was a distraction from our real job of removing our own biases, figuring out what our customers actually need, and relentlessly focusing on the hard task of solving our customers’ problems. Solving customer problems isn’t as sexy as slinging tech, but it’s our real job and it’s where true satisfaction for designer and customer alike resides.
That said, some of the change we’re seeing now is good and important and worth struggling through if it helps us bring better products and experiences to our customers. I talked about my own struggles learning new things after decades in the industry in “You Got This” on Automattic Design this year. Some of my resistance to the shiny new is because it’s a distraction. But admittedly, some is also because learning new things is hard, and gets harder as you get on in life and your career. (Learning new things about your work after 20 years in a field is harder than learning new things when you’ve been on the job for only a few months because after 20 years you also have things to unlearn, whereas in the beginning you’re a blank slate.)
So I’m all for change for personal growth’s sake and when it benefits the customer (for instance by allowing you to create affordances you couldn’t create in the past).
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