Put People First

There are as many misconceptions about designers within our industry as without, especially among those new to the culture. Among the unhealthiest is the belief that a good designer should forego sleep and a social life out of devotion to a project. Sure, it’s tempting to spend hours working out the math for a baseline grid, but if you do so at the expense of time spent with others you’re missing the forest for the trees. If you get bogged down in nothing but the details you’ll forget what design is truly about.

Man Standing in Front of Computers

Design is communication and communication is about people. If you aren’t spending quality time with human beings, you won’t be an effective designer. You may create something that works well and looks great, but if it isn’t built with people in mind, it will lack the soul that is a hallmark true brilliance.

The nitty-gritty of design needs to be subservient to our higher goals — the “what” shouldn’t be more important than the “why.” It’s easy to lose ourselves in a sea of pixels, but pixel-pushing isn’t design. Design is building something that makes life better for people. It’s about presenting information in a more appreciable way, or enabling a tool to work differently than it did before. It’s about making computers work better with people rather than forcing people to work better with computers.

The key is people. The better we understand human behavior, the better we can to serve the users for whom we build things. Understanding people academically is one thing, but to be great designers we need to spend time in the world away from our screens. Go out for drinks, shoot the breeze, reconnect with someone old, get to know someone new. Talk about the things that matter. Step into someone else’s shoes. There’s no such thing as a boring person; we all have the spark that makes us human.

Design is a lifestyle job, and as such it easily becomes all-consuming. My friends with more traditional jobs tend to clock out at 5:00pm and not think about work until the next morning; meanwhile, if we’re watching TV, I’m examining the network branding and trying to decide if the kerning is quite right. I love the design/startup lifestyle, but I also believe we’re playing with fire. If we make our work into an idol, we can easily lose sight of what makes that work valuable in the first place.

What’s true of design culture is frequently true of startup culture as well. Early-stage companies are an awesome thing — there are few things as compelling as watching a small team work together to challenge the status quo. But those of us involved in startups love to work long hours doing solitary work, locked to our screens while the rest of the world is out socializing. Passion is admirable, but it needs to be tempered by the compassion and empathy offered by relationships.

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir; maybe I’m the only one who needs to be reminded to keep life in my work/life balance. (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve written an article for myself.) I’m always heartened to see that for every “It’s 2am and I’m still working” tweet, there’s a blog post about a startup team hanging out, or designers spending time with their families, or entrepreneurs doing something relaxing away from work. Maybe the reason I went into this field is because I love people, and I just need to do a better job of remembering that.

We talk about the design community and the startup community, and they’re exactly that: communities. But they’re communities within the larger community, the human community, and that’s worth constant appreciation.

Image from the movie “The Dark Knight”, directed by Christopher Nolan, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Seen here, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox standing in front of an array of monitors. Initial theatrical release July 18, 2008. Screen capture. © 2008 Warner Bros. Credit: © 2008 Warner Bros. / Courtesy Pyxurz.

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