Learning to code will only make you stronger as a designer — an interview
I’ve interviewed junior to senior designers
This article is part of a series of interviews with world-class designers. I’ve interviewed junior to senior designers from companies such as IDEO, Dropbox, Visa, Airbnb, Toptal, Shopify and others. “Questions to your younger self” was the format I used because I believe that it’s easier to give advice to my younger self than to someone else.
So, in order to make the life of my interviewees easy, they would just have to give recommendations and advice to their younger selves on what it takes to become a world-class designer and what they should avoid to speed up the process.
I interviewed Mehera a few years back and the content still relevant today.
Without further ado, meet Mehera Kvam:
Mehera has 17 years of professional experience in Interaction Design. Her work encompasses Human-Centered Design research and innovation strategy, digital product/service design, and communication campaigns for a broad range of global clients, spanning Fortune 500 companies as well as startups.
She has also held positions in design education and serves as an active mentor within the IxD global community. Mehera has held leadership positions in the US and Europe and, for the past two years, has worked extensively in Africa.
Tip: in bold, you have the questions followed by the answer.
Guidione: How would you explain IxD or UX Design to your younger self with one year of work experience?
Mehera: Your job is to connect the dots between how people think and feel with how they use technology. In the course of your career, technology will change a lot, and your job will challenge you to understand these changes so that you can always translate it back to the needs of people.
Guidione: Which mistakes would you tell your younger self to make?
Mehera: Make the ‘mistake’ of pushing back on your clients when you think their view is wrong. Don’t just take orders because your clients tell you “those are the business requirements”. Also, make the mistake of stepping outside of the IxD/UX box: if graphic design or video editing or writing interest you, explore. The creative brain hungers for variety, and it’s ok if you love UX now, but end up wanting to do something else down the road.
Guidione: What would you recommend your younger self to focus on?
Mehera: Focus on research and design strategy, not just executing wireframes. To have a long, successful career, it is important to learn to sell your ideas, which requires you to know how to think, and how to make.
Guidione: What do you advise your younger self to learn (to get extra skills)?
Mehera: Learn to code. It will only make you stronger as a designer, and it will allow you to push back on clients and developers with a more informed view. Also learn graphic design, even if you are not a master of it. But never forget the fine arts background you grew up with. Being able to draw on paper, construct things with tape and glue — these are skill sets that can be applied to interface design. One creates with the brain (and the heart), not the computer mouse.
Guidione: Which books would you encourage your longer self to read?
Mehera: Interactive design books get outdated very quickly because technology gets outdated quickly, so it’s better to read blogs, attend events and watch videos on the latest trends to keep up with the subject (it’s also a lot cheaper and more portable!). For example, Interaction ’20 (a conference) talks can be found on Vimeo.
If you must invest in books, I think this publisher is good because the books are small and easier to consume than others: Rosenfeld Media. Many people respect the O’Reilly series, but I find them hard to consume. MIT Press puts out good books in general about technology and society, so they are a good publisher to know.
I do really like these two books, though:
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman (a classic).
- IDEO.org’s Field Guide provides a good overview of research techniques (all materials can also be found online!) — designkit.org.
But most importantly, don’t just read IxD/design books. It’s important to understand pop culture. Read literature read about science, art, culture. Understanding how people think and feel will guide your work, and sometimes the strangest things will give you a great idea.
Guidione: Which people would you advise your younger self to follow?
Mehera: Let me first say who not to follow. Anyone who depletes you, or knocks you down, don’t keep them around. You will meet people who are well-known in the industry; they work at famous companies, judge important awards shows, publish articles in well-known design magazines and give inspiring talks at conferences.
Some of these people are not kind, or humble, and they care more about their own visibility and success than they care about becoming a mentor or using the power of their stature to make the design industry a better, more equitable, more accessible place. Don’t follow these people, or, if you do, don’t idolize them!
When you meet someone whose experience seems interesting to you, who you feel you connect with on some level, keep these people in your network. Stay in touch with them. Ask them questions. Measure yourself against them, not in a competitive way, but in a way that challenges you to strive for more. Finally, remember that your mentors may not be designers. They may be people in other professions who represent qualities that you would like to build in yourself. They may be senior to you, or junior to you. You will know them when you feel a sense of joy, inspiration and confidence when you talk to them about your career.
Guidione: Which companies would you suggest your younger self ask for an internship?
Remember that designers are usually hired based on a portfolio of work, not just a resume (CV), so seek out companies that give you an opportunity to use your skills and to grow. When you are junior, it’s sometimes better to be in a small company where you get to do many things at once and build up your project experience.
Although you will lose out on some of the structure of a bigger, more “professional” company, you may have more to show for it in a year. Alternatively, bigger companies have more resources and often work for bigger, more demanding clients, which will teach you rigour.
What is more important than a company name is the job itself: what will you do during the internship? Will you get to work on projects, or will you just fetch coffee? Will you be assigned a mentor to guide you? Do you feel a cultural fit with the other people or the mission of the company? Seek out jobs that play to your strengths, but that also scare you a little. If the job doesn’t scare you, it’s not a big enough step. I called this “embracing Scary Good“, which is a healthy fear that drives you to work hard and grow.
Guidione: Which tools would you advise your younger self to learn (become an expert in)?
Mehera: Because technology changes, so does software, so it’s more important to keep up with the trends. Right now, people love Sketch, which is way less expensive than the Adobe Creative Cloud and has plugins that make prototyping very easy.
I recently attended a prototyping seminar, and InVision and Flinto were highly recommended. Also, know how to put together presentations (Powerpoint or Keynote). Google Docs/Spreadsheets are useful for project notes and organizing research. It’s very good if you know how to type. And I’ll say it again if you can draw and code great skills!
Guidione: What wouldn’t you tell your younger self?
Mehera: I wouldn’t tell her that she will be successful, because if she knew that she might not have worked as hard. I also wouldn’t tell her that she will get bored with design sometimes, that she will often dream of changing career to do something entirely different, but that design will keep calling her back for a new adventure.
I also wouldn’t tell her that she will get bored with design sometimes, that she will often dream of changing career to do something entirely different, but that design will keep calling her back for a new adventure.
Guidione: In talking to your younger self, how much of your current success would you attribute to hard work, and how much would you attribute to luck?
It’s definitely both. And you can put privilege there if you want to open that pandora box — definitely more hard work than luck. I would say hard work 70% and luck 30%.
Originally published on medium.