Bookmark Beat: EP 12

Finding your "why"

Wow! It's been over a month since my last beat… Time sure does fly 🛫 as do I, since the sheer amount of travel this last month has made fitting in writing a bit difficult! This time, we'll be covering finding your “why”, how to incorporate it into your portfolio and how to use it to make important decisions within your career.

_* a “why” - in this beat - will be referring to the purpose of your career, a mission statement, or some other way of defining why you work so damn hard._

But first, an intro…

If this is your first issue, then I highly recommend visiting the archive and, if you haven't already, subscribing on Substack 📬

An intro: Creative consumption

A couple weeks ago, I was asked by a friend what inspires me. They were looking for recommendations for books, websites or products that influenced the way I design or helped define my aesthetics. Yet, the first thing that came to mind wasn't design-related at all. Instead, I answered “fantasy and sci-fi novels!”

Just a few days before, I had read David Hoang's recent issue of Proof of Concept called Creative Consumption. In the post, he reflects on how watching movies, TV shows and otherwise enjoying content can fuel his creative engine. Despite not really liking the concept of “content” (I think the word de-values the amount of human effort that goes into making something), I agree with the idea that it isn't always “more important to create content than consume it”. If we can't take a break from the thing we're always doing, it can be hard to find joy, value or innovative ideas within it.

Which is why I thought of Brandon Sanderson, Timothy Zahn and N. K. Jemisin when I was asked what inspired me. These worlds of arcane magic, starship empires and people that can control earthquakes are just as real as they are imagined. The stories and characters contained within are reflections of the sorts of the people and problems I encounter daily.

Sure, I may not be dueling high princes or commanding an imperial star destroyer at work, but when I encounter a difference in opinion between myself and stakeholder, I might just draw upon the story of a particular character to better understand someone else's point of view.

It's widely known that reading increases empathy. So, when I find in a user study that someone approaches a problem completely differently than the way I expected, I'm not surprised! Spending enough time in the heads of people that aren't like me, and experiencing worlds that are completely made up by an author I will never meet, has prepared me for such moments.


Let's talk about your “why”

In the last beat, I shared my hope that portfolios would either disappear or at least shift to be just as helpful for candidates as they are for hiring managers. But, as long as we still have them, I think it's important to also share the one piece of advice I consistently give when being asked to review a designer's portfolio…

Tell me who you are. What is your “why”? Now own that “why” in every portfolio piece.

Here's a few “why"s I've seen - in order of least unique/interesting to most:

  • Translate complex problems into enjoyable user experiences
  • Connect people to opportunities using technology
  • Make software suck less
  • Bringing [specific industry] experiences to life using [specific skills]
  • Improve the lives of [specific population] using [specific skills]

To give an example of how these things play into one's career, I'll share my “why”:

connect user needs with the developer experience

Out of the examples I gave above, I think my “why” falls somewhere between “make software suck less” and “bringing [specific industry] experiences to life using [specific skills]". If I wasn't so attached to it, I might work on it more to push it to be even more specific. But since it's been on my website's home page for over half a decade now, it may be a while before I revisit it.

In this pithy statement, I am attempting to summarize a core a belief of mine: if we make building a better user experience the path of least resistance for software teams, then we'll actually end up building the best user experience.

In my resume, portfolio, conference talks and interviews, I am constantly reiterating this point. As a designer, I..

  • Design using tools that developers can understand - reducing time to market and improving our ability to get feedback quickly
  • Talk to users… a lot - synthesizing this research into reports that designers, developers and “business people” can understand and act upon
  • Foster a culture of feedback - including user feedback - using my facilitation and people management skills

These skills are present in almost every designer's portfolio. Yet, hiring managers scan through them, ensure their hiring requirements are met, and either interview you or don't. Without a narrative hook, a brand, your “why”, these skills get lost in the blocks of text and images of a case study.

In my experience, recruiters and hiring managers don't ear-mark your resume because of that amazing dashboard design or some “complex problem” that you turned into an “enjoyable user experience”. Instead, they interview you because you told a consistent story of solving the types of problems that match up with the ones they're currently facing (or even expecting to face).

But first, you have to define your “why”. Then you can connect it to the mission of your current company to work on projects you truly care about - or, perhaps, use it to find the company that's the right fit for you!

Step 1: Discover what's already gotten you this far

Designers are special creatures. We may not be the only profession that thinks visually, but we shouldn't discount that superpower of ours. If you've read (or at least skimmed) Abby Covert's How to Make Sense of Any Mess or Temple Grandin's Visual Thinking, you'll already appreciate that visualizing something can be a great first step toward a solution.

So I'm going to recommending finding your “why” through a visualization method. Grab a stack of sticky notes or note cards and do the following:

  1. Write out each project you've worked on - even the ones you aren't proud of - one per sticky/notecard as follows:
    • Project Name
    • Problem you solved
  2. Group the stickies/cards in an affinity map, first by feel, then start naming categories. Here are some example categories that can come out of the exercise:
    • Redefining boundaries
    • Learning different cultures
    • Helping people express themselves
    • Changing minds
    • Creating original/innovative solutions
  3. Once you have a good set of labels, take a step back. Take a picture. Erase the labels and regroup items. Do this until you feel like the categories represent possible “why"s (or parts of a “why”) that could define all the projects you are proud of.

From here, try to rephrase the “why” into something that you could put at the top of a resume or on the homepage of your portfolio site. It may take some explanation… and that's okay! Mine has two paragraphs to preface it and it often takes a minute or to ramp up to it during interviews.

Now it's time to…

Step 2: Connect the dots

In Steve Job's famous Stanford commencement speech, he reflects on the choices he made in the past and how these choices influenced a key moment in the development of Apple computers:

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on that calligraphy class, and the personal computer might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots, looking forward when I was in college. But, it was very very clear, looking backwards 10 years later.

Similarly, it's impossible to look ahead to see where your “why” will take you. But first, look back and make sure they're connected in your portfolio!

It doesn't have to be explicitly called out, but every case study should have some connection to your “why”. Sometimes it just takes a sentence or two in the “problem statement” or a highlight of why a particular artifact/research methodology was chosen. Ask other people to review your portfolio and look for the “why” in each case study to make sure it's clear enough. If not, rewrite the case study or consider pulling that case study out of your portfolio altogether.

Once your portfolio is squared away, your “why” can be leveraged to prioritize what sorts of projects you take on at your current role or as a freelancer. Grace Walker covered this in a recent Webflow session, Small on purpose: Thriving as a Webflow solopreneur.

At around 7:48, she recommends three questions to ask when considering to take on new work:

  • What are my values?
  • Does this project align with my values?
  • If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?

Your “why” can help you answer these questions and advocate for yourself in 1on1s with your manager, meetings with potential clients and interviews with future employers.

I'm often asked “what can I do to ‘level up’ in my career?", “What skills do I need to learn?” and “How do I get better at design?” My answer to all these questions is “do the next right thing”. I know, that's the “it depends” of career advice. But I believe that answering the questions that Grace suggests and leveraging your “why” can make it easier to find that “next right thing”… even if it means taking your “why” to another company altogether.

I have had to leave companies to answer these questions for myself… and I'd love to share some of the tools I used to evaluate that decision. But this post is already really long, so I'll save that for the next beat 😉

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Coda: Why is everything so ugly?

I'm going to wrap up this beat with a couple of funny-yet-terrifying posts that slipped into my bookmarks this week:

The first one is from n+1 mag, whose writers dare to ask the question, Why Is Everything So Ugly?. Here's an excerpt that details the design of a new apartment building in the neighborhood:

Each of these colors corresponds to a different material — plastic, concrete, rolled-on brick, an obscure wood-like substance — and the overall effect is of an overactive spreadsheet… The lineage isn’t Bauhaus so much as a sketch of the Bauhaus that’s been xeroxed half a dozen times.

The whole piece inspires a sort of heartless joy. I hope it can at least encourage all the designers who read it to get outside more so that they can fully appreciate how iteration doesn't always lead to improvement.

Similarly, this talk from Jonathan Blow at the video game development conference, DevGAMM, makes an eloquent case for why we might be in the middle of a collapse of civilization. Despite not being the place you'd expect to hear such news, Jonathan connects the dots between software quality, the rise of unnecessary abstractions and the fall of many ancient empires.

It's as silly as it is prescient - predicting both the supply chain crisis of 2020 and accidentally pointing out some flaws in the logic of his own hero, Elon Musk.

Speaking of Elon. No tweet of the week again this week. I can't bear to login to the platform anymore… If anyone has any suggestions on how to make Twitter bearable again, or has left to greener pastures, let me know! I'd love to find a social place on the internet where I might actually enjoy hanging out.

Until then… See ya next beat 🥁😎🥁