Designing Outside the Mainstream

There are days when it seems like every good designer lives in San Francisco and works on consumer-facing products.

Following our peers on Twitter, reading tech articles and blog posts, listening to design podcasts — all of these can give the impression that our whole world exists in one place, and that those who aren’t on the inside — the digerati and designerati — are being left out.

Of course this isn’t true. But for those of us outside the Bay Area, or outside the sphere of consumer-facing design, it can often feel like it is.

I know this feeling well. I don’t live in SF, or New York, or any other well-known tech hub; I live in a little town in the Hudson Valley, two hours north of Manhattan. I’m not involved in consumer-facing design; I work on internal tools for large enterprises. It can be isolating.

The grand irony is that our industry is among the least-centralized and most open that’s ever existed. We can do our work remotely from anywhere with an internet connection. Communities like Twitter, Dribbble, and Designer News allow us to communicate with our peers and participate in the larger themes and conversations relevant to our field. On the whole, designers are friendly and generous when it comes to meeting new people and sharing knowledge.

And yet the feeling of isolation persists.

If I don’t go to San Francisco, will I get left behind? Am I missing opportunities that I may never have again?

Prioritize

It’s true that there are different opportunities in different regions. Not every job can be handled remotely, and remote work is a much different experience than being part of an on-site team. There’s something to be said for taking the road less travelled, and if you feel strongly about living in a certain place, don’t be deterred by the intrinsic challenges.

I’ll use myself as an example. I love the Hudson Valley — I was born and raised here, and I believe strongly in its potential. I know that I could join a company in SF or New York City for a few years and build up my “design cred,” but I feel like I’m supposed to be here, investing my time and energy in the place and people that I love.

Maybe that’s irrational; on paper, a few years spent elsewhere isn’t a big deal. But I believe we should work to live, not live to work; our vocation should support the lives we’re crafting for ourselves, not supersede it.

In the echo chamber of the design world, it’s easy to forget how many great designers live outside the big-name design hubs. What are the chances that there are really more designers in SF and New York than elsewhere? Even Dribbble itself is headquartered in the tiny city of Salem, MA (population 41,000).

There are designers everywhere — San Francisco and New York, Copenhagen and Portland, Mumbai and Louisville. We’re privileged to work in a community that’s scattered around the globe, in big cities and small towns alike.

Stay Connected

No matter how remote you think you are, there are ways to be involved with the greater design community: Socialize. Start writing. Join the conversation. Collaborate on a side project.

Network. There are design conferences all over the world, where you can learn and meet people. If a conference isn’t feasible, you could find (or start) a meetup or other local event. It’ll amaze you how many people with similar jobs or interests are nearby that you just aren’t aware of. If you’d asked me 14 months ago how many designers or developers lived in my region, I would’ve guessed around 50; that was the same time the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup was started, and now we’re at over 560 members.

Start writing. Seriously, even if you don’t think you have anything of value to say, pull from your personal experience and set your thoughts to words. Whether you publish on your personal blog, on a service like Medium, or in a larger publication, writing is an essential way to start conversations and add to our industry’s body of knowledge. I first began to feel like part of the larger design community when I started writing for The Industry and hearing from people who wanted to discuss similar topics.

Start a side project. Create something you’re interested in, no matter if it’s as complex as an app or as simple as a curated blog of things that inspire you.

Join the conversation. Reach out on Twitter. Our community is friendly and open, and many of the big-name designers that seem like they’d be hard to reach are real humans who are humble and accessible.

Set Down Roots

Living outside the rarefied air of the tech cities can be an advantage. There’s a lot to be said for living outside the echo chamber. There are important problems to be solved everywhere, even — and especially — outside of Silicon Valley. We’re surrounded by real problems and real people that have a different relationship with technology than we do.

We have an opportunity to invest in where we are. Every location and every industry needs design, and it’s critical that those of us with the appropriate skills are planted everywhere those skills are needed. In places and industries with fewer designers, the impact that each of us can have is much greater than in places where designers are everywhere. If every designer were in the same place working on similar problems, the world would be a poorer place for it.

Jumpstarting a Design Community

Understand Your Compensation

Designer Monoculture

The State of Design Leadership

The Science of Product Design

Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

The Importance of Design Conventions