Thursday, November 28, 2013

on exposure

I was speaking with Andrew the other day about the transition from in-house to agency and how that adjustment takes place after a number of years at the former. because a number of years at the former has a particular pace and a particular comfort in the ownership and management of the design you do and the thinking you think and the constraints you know and the collaboration you undertake and the scrutiny under which you find yourself and the measurement of success that you might be subjected to which is likely measured over a period not much less than a decent-sized freelance contract against a set of goals and objectives mapped out over a period not much less the bronze age.

if you have spent a meaningful amount of time as a resident designer on the client side, either as a larger team, or, worse still, as the design team of one, you've likely woken up at your desk one day and realised you can probably go back to sleep for a while and nobody will notice until the end of the quarter. a massive generalisation of course, and more likely just an accurate description of my 14 years in-house, but the point is that the pace and scrutiny is different. and it can be a safe place. and you can get away with it. and you can sometimes disappear completely.

once you make the change, however, you can suddenly find yourself very exposed. I thought it was perfectly acceptable to take 6 months to design a faceted navigation system for a line of hardware. and, you know, it kind of was. but as soon as you get started on your first proper design project agency side, you are immediately aware that there is something different. people want to know what you're doing all the time. they want to know why. they want you to explain to them the things they don't understand and tell you why those things you suddenly can't articulate aren't actually that good anyway. they want to question everything you do. and, by the way, that 6 months? that's actually 6 days here. if there's one thing that really hits home in your first 3 months of transition, it's the change in pace. and it's not that the change in pace is a bad thing. it's just that it feels like you don't have enough time to think. which means you don't have enough time to design. which is stressful and surprising and difficult and awkward. because you might not actually be able to do it. you might fail. and everyone will be able to say they told you so. and you'll be exposed.

if I'm honest, it took about a year to get used to the change in pace, which I'm sure will be validated by the account teams who's budget I used to work that out. I'm pretty efficient now. and that doesn't mean I'm by any means a worse designer for being a more efficient designer. it just means I'm a bit quicker. if anything, I believe it makes me a better designer, since I've worked on the skill that is understanding and articulating the very thing in a given design challenge that is where the opportunity lies. and I can do that very quickly. and I can do it for multiple design challenges. and I can move from studio to studio, whiteboard to whiteboard, desk to desk, and I can point to the thing that matters. it's an acquired skill. it takes time to learn. but the efficiency in the clarity is what facilitates pace.

the less tangible form of exposure comes when you are suddenly placed under an intense level of interrogation regarding the very thing that you think makes you a designer in the first place. your design thinking. or whatever you want to call it. that process you go through when you think about stuff. and write down words. and draw boxes. or abstract categorisations of emotions. maybe you use different colour pens. maybe you cut bits of paper out and rearrange them in a way that you think is the responsive version of the jean genie. whatever you do to evolve insight into articulation. evidence to ideas. you know, DOING DESIGN THINGS. for that is the place where you've likely never really had to justify yourself to other people who might actually be designers too who might even be better designers who might even be honest designers who might actually tell you what they think. because when design is money, clarity is currency. you really need to be able to explain yourself. be under no illusion, when you work for an agency, your constraint is time. but your reputation is all about quality. so quality is, and should be, ruthlessly monitored, evaluated, and understood. and that's why the integrity of design and design thinking is the first thing that you will get caught out on. well, apart from the pace thing. but it's not personal. even though that's what it feels like the first few times someone like me sits down with you, looks at your designs and pulls that horrible squinty patronising-but-really-caring face that tells you there's something not quite right. but I do that because, actually, there's something not quite right. I've exposed you. how you then deal with that is that up to you. if you're anything like me, you'll probably print out pictures of me and stick them to your bedroom door whereupon you'll spend a full 3 nights throwing manically sharpened pencils at them sobbing in your underpants slowly mouthing "I can design. I'm a good designer. I can design. I'm a good designer. I can design. I'm a good designer" over and over and over until you're all cried out and you collapse on the floor onto a pile of ripped up creative reviews as the queen is dead plays on repeat over the wail of sirens and the incessant banging on the door.

you get over it. it's all part of the transition. welcome to the real world.

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