On Being a Solo Designer, Part I
You find yourself landing a solo designer role in a company.
In the beginning, you may feel a little scared, but very excited to take on the challenge of designing that amazing product, and making design a driving force of your organization.
Maybe you have been the solo designer for a while, and you feel a bit discouraged as you face obstacles you did not expect.
Maybe things are really difficult for you right now, and you are slowly losing confidence in yourself.
If the above describes you as a solo designer, I hope I can offer you some encouragement and reminders — something I wish I knew or kept in mind when I started this journey.
I will break things down into four parts:
Taking care of your emotional well-being.
Growing as a designer.
Be the advocate of design in your organization.
Be prepared to grow the design team.
In this post, I will focus on the emotional well-being, and address the tactical aspects of succeeding as a solo designer in later posts.
Why do I start with emotional well-being you ask? It sounds so cliché and generic, because it applies to anyone in any situation. “Tell me something design-related!” I hear you say.
If someone were to tell me this a few years ago, I would’ve had the same reaction. But having gone through an emotional roller coaster ride as a solo designer and building a design team, I’ve experienced first-hand how great the impact my emotions have had on my performance.
Being the solo designer is a demanding but lonely endeavour.
You are responsible for not only designing, but also shaping the design culture of your organization. You have a lot of burden to carry — all by yourself.
Of course you will need to find allies and be strategic about your approaches (which I will talk about in later posts). But first of all, you need to recognize that it is a huge task for anyone to take on. And also recognize that you’re here because you have the skills and are trusted with your skills to make a difference.
Once you can recognize the above, here are some things I find quite helpful to keep in mind.
1. You’re Not Alone.
I’m going to tell you a secret:
We all get discouraged when we run into obstacles. We all get frustrated when other people just don’t seem to get it, no matter how hard we try. We all feel unworthy when we look around and others all seem to have it together, and we are the only ones that don’t.
Not so much of a secret, is it? Well, when you’re so wrapped up in your own stress, that’s not what it seems. It’s very tempting to theorize that you’re going through all of these difficulties because you’re not good enough (aka the imposter syndrome).
It’s not you.
Your feelings are normal and expected, this is not an easy job. Don’t fault yourself for it. Everyone will feel this way if they’re in this situation. Make peace with your feelings.
2. Not “Me vs. Them”.
Being the solo designer means a lot of times it feels like it’s you against them (whoever “them” is in your scenario). Please try your best to avoid this line of thinking. It’s unhealthy and unhelpful.
Here are a few possibilities you need to consider:
You may find others opposing your suggestions or proposal. It’s not necessarily because they’re against the ideas behind them, but perhaps they don’t really know much about their benefits.
Your organization may not be in a position to allocate money or resource to the things you wish they would.
People in other teams have their goals and priorities that theoretically should align with yours, but are ultimately different than yours.
In any case, it will help if you find out why it feels like people are giving you a hard time. You’ll find that it’s almost never the case that they have something against you. So don’t take it personally.
Instead, try to tackle them as design challenges. Find out why your push is met with objections, and design your solutions around it. It may include having a coffee chat with that difficult person and learning about their perspective, giving some design-focused lunch-and-learns at your company to educate people about it, or meeting other teams in the middle so you can achieve a common goal.
In the long run, the “me vs. them” thinking will make the workplace unpleasant and even toxic. You will feel bitter, frustrated, and irritated. That’s not a good place to be in. You’re warned.
3. Baby Steps and Patience
It is said that Rome was not built in one day. Neither is a solid design culture in an organization.
It’s very tempting to address all the problems you face all at once, because you really just want to get over it and move forward. And it’s very natural to be discouraged when it feels like your effort is in vain.
Whether you’re still in the “I’m ready to take on the world” phase or already in the “this is harder than I thought” phase, it’s good to remember that great things take time to build.
If you’re a product designer, you very well understand the importance of iteration, and the learn -> build -> measure process. And if it takes months to design and iterate on a feature, imagine how long it will take to change the way people think and behave.
Again I would like to talk about how you can change what people think of design at a later post, but here I just want to raise the fact that change will take time, so don’t be discouraged when things don’t go according to plan.
4. Not Failure — Learning Experiences
There will be a lot of “firsts” in both your job and your company’s design history. And as such, mistakes happen. Sometimes, you fail.
Looking back at my journey as a solo designer, there were so many things I wish I had done differently. There were features I’ve designed that were frankly not that easy to use. There were times I wish I’d been more vocal. And as I’m growing the team, I really felt I could’ve done it better in one way or the other.
I often think that being a designer means that you deal with failure and rejection all the time. But just because you can deal with design critique doesn’t always mean you can be objective about failing.
Everyone wants to do a perfect job, especially when you’re the only designer, you feel solely responsible for your decisions, it’s very tempting to put the blame on your own shoulders.
But you know what’s worse than making mistakes or failing? Never trying.
The fact that you’ve failed at least means two things: 1. that you’ve tried, and now know what doesn’t work, and 2. that you’ve learnt something, and next time when you’re in a similar situation, you can make the right choice. Both mean you are growing not only as a designer, but also as a person.
5. Find Support
Many research studies have shown the positive effect of having social support. It’s probably more crucial to the solo designers out there, who sometimes can feel that no one understands their challenges. If you are like me — introverted and an imposter, then it could be daunting to reach out to other people and talk about your struggles.
I encourage that you do anyway. Once you do, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well you are received by others, and how often people are willing to lend you an ear, or a helping hand, or both.
Support within your organization will nurture a mutual understanding between you and the people you ask for help from. They may give you ideas you otherwise wouldn’t have because they come from a different perspective, and may know things about the organization that you don’t. They will also likely be your allies as you advocate for design in the organization. As the solo designer, you can definitely use more help when facing your challenges.
6. Give Support
Sometimes you may feel that you have nothing worth giving. But that’s not true. Everything you’ve experienced and learnt as a solo designer is valuable to others who may be or will be on this journey.
And this takes us back to the beginning of this post — you’re not alone.