5 stories from two decades of design

Celebrating two decades in design this February, I hope my story highlights the qualities that define not just successful designers, but individuals who thrive in an environment of constant change.

5 stories from two decades of design

I turned 40. Celebrating two decades in design this February, my journey has spanned from the early days of social media to the emergence of AI-generated video, navigating the waves of digital transformation. Along this path, I've seen the design landscape evolve, from periods of rapid growth to phases some might label as efficiency "decline".

In reflecting on these shifts, I've distilled my experiences into five 1-min stories, each one a testament to enduring principles that transcend time and trends. These stories not only describes my professional path but also offer timeless principles for those navigating the ever-changing world of design. As we look towards the future, I hope my story highlights the qualities that define not just successful designers, but individuals who thrive in an environment of constant change.

Growth and Adaptability

In my first 10 years as a designer, being young and hungry, experimentation was my guiding principle. I embraced every opportunity that came my way, saying "yes" with open arms. This led me to step into roles far outside my comfort zone, without authority, influence, or specific domain knowledge. My brazen moves ranged from pitching to a Los Angeles movie studio and cold emailing Sony to landing a job through a single tweet. These experiences spanned diverse domains, from ad tech and eCommerce to SaaS digital business products.

This approach wasn't about collecting prestigious "Tier 1 brands" in my portfolio. Rather, it was about building a foundation of lifelong adaptability — a skill crucial for designers in the constantly evolving technology sector. True growth comes from fearlessly exploring new horizons and staying open-minded enough to embrace failure. The ability to adapt and accept change is forged through these diverse experiences and perspectives.

Resiliency and Restoration

In the 11th year of my design career, I hit a plateau in the design management ladder. The allure of big tech was strong, with interviews from Google, LinkedIn, and Netflix, but I chose a different path: solopreneurship.

The allure of freedom, individualism, and the ability to select projects was too compelling to ignore. Going freelance required me to wear many hats: managing eight client projects simultaneously, handling operations, sales, billing, and still performing core design work.

This path was challenging, with some months marred by burnout. I learned that saying “yes” to everything wasn't always the way forward. It took many years to understand my limits, a process that develops my power of resiliency and restoration.

A video, "Tribute to Discomfort" by Cory Richards, deeply influenced me. His determination showed that anything is possible if you dare to dream. In my journey, the real legacy is the people. As I surpassed the milestone of shipping over 60+ applications, quantitative metrics faded away, projects come and go. What mattered were the relationships, the ideas we shared and the values of quality we spread. A heartfelt thanks to Martiancraft for their blend of genius and folly.

Privilege to age

In my 18th year of professional life, shortly after joining Amazon, I faced an unexpected, life-altering health challenge. In 2022, I underwent four major surgeries, including one for Thyroid Cancer. I grappled with pain and vulnerability unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Today I'm finding the fortitude to share my story publicly, recognizing that this vulnerability could foster connection and healing.

Unlike the control I was accustomed to in the past 18 years, this wasn't something I could have navigated through sheer mental will or expertise. I had to re/unlearn my mindset and rebuild new purpose. As I invested in helping others, I gradually healed, returning to the person I once knew.

After 3.5 years of mentoring, I've learned that it is in giving that we receive the most. This journey wasn’t just about battling an illness; it was about recognizing the privilege of survival, not just in years, but in wisdom and the ability to positively impact others' lives. I dream of one day leaving a legacy through my experiences, perhaps writing a book as many have pushed me to do, or even speaking on a Tedx stage.

Focus and Balance

Following my health recovery, I dedicated six months to unlearning the habit of saying "yes" to too many things, a behavior that threatens my physical wellbeing. Steve Jobs once famously remarked, "...you have to pick carefully. I'm proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things."

Learning to say no to numerous interruptions, unnecessary requests, naysayers, and distractions was a challenging but crucial step. Focusing on just 2-3 key areas compels a strategic approach, empowering others to excel in their own capacities. This law of discernment, applied with purpose and intention, ensures sustainability.

Allies of Support

As I embark towards my third decade in design, I reflect on an unconventional journey where each experience has been a facet in reinventing myself. My career is a rich tapestry, each thread representing a version of me as an artist of life, living with intention and purpose. Every season has brought gifts that have shaped the future 'me'. I owe much to the generosity of mentors who believed in me, especially when I was out of gas.

In the ever-evolving tech world, allies and supporters are crucial. They challenge the status quo in an environment where mediocrity often prevails. Help create a safe space for failure, learning, and restoration. We are all humans, after all.

Conclusion: Designer Manifesto

What does it take to be a designer who stands the test of time? My two decades in design have taught me that it's not just about keeping up with trends or mastering new tools. It's about embodying timeless qualities that define not just a good designer, but a great one.

  1. Adaptability: Embrace change and be ready to venture into unknown territories.
  2. Resiliency: Overcome challenges and bounce back stronger from setbacks.
  3. Restoration: Recognize the importance of healing and self-care in sustaining creativity.
  4. Individualism: Stay true to your unique vision and values in your work.
  5. Craft: Continuously hone and refine your skills with passion and dedication.
  6. Grit: Show perseverance and determination in the face of adversity.
  7. Purpose: Understand your 'why' and let it guide your design choices.
  8. Focus: Learn to prioritize and concentrate on what truly matters.
  9. Support: Build and cherish a network of mentors and allies.
  10. Artist Principles: Create your own manifesto

These traits are life skills that will guide you through the ever-changing landscape of design. As designers, we weave a tapestry of experiences and skills that stand the test of time. Embrace these qualities, and you'll not only survive the changes in our field but thrive in them, creating work that resonates today and for years to come.