3 things about Design I’d tell myself 4 years ago.

As I was getting ready to embark on a new professional journey, after four incredible years at IBM Design, a colleague prompted me to:

Share 3 artifacts that you think will be most helpful to us, or maybe 3 tips.

So I decided to put some thoughts in writing and share them with the hope that they might help someone else navigate their design career. They’re things I wish I’d known when I was first getting started, and they apply to any designer at any type of company. Here goes nothing.

During your career, you’ll hopefully work with people from different backgrounds and skills. This diversity of experiences will only make your team more robust and complete. But remember that no two people have the same perspective so you have to be ready for disagreements and conflict. Don’t fret.

Lead out in healthy collaboration by showing your team that you value the differences and unique point-of-view of each team member.

More often than not, every person on your team is trying to reach the same goals as you—growth, success, and whatnot—but they might approach them from different avenues that feel disconnected to your own path. Try to learn what drives each person and how they are measured by their respective managers or executives. Meet with them, ask them upfront what they want to do and where they want to go. Listen and listen actively. Whether you become in complete sync with each person or not, you’ll show that you care about their wellbeing and appreciate what they bring to the team. You don’t need to become best friends with every person. But having a bit of camaraderie will go a long way when the waters get rough-and trust me, they will.

👂 Here’s a podcast about the power of collaboration.

You’ve likely read many things about the power of the word “no” and how to ensure it’s backed up by a clear rationale. Learning the skill of “no” is near impossible without actually having to do it in practice. Nobody wants to be negative, a hurdle or a blocker to a team’s efficiency and process.

Too often the person who says “sorry, but I can’t do this right now” or “I’m not able to tackle this work because of my current priorities” is labeled a naysayer and an egotistical evil character who wants to go against the team’s best interests.

Well, screw that! Simply be ready to support the reasons why you’re not able to respond to that last minute request with an emphatic yes. During your design work, you’ll become accustomed to speaking in “yes, and…” statements that build upon your teammate's ideas and foster communication across the board. So take that same concept and apply it to the moments when the answer is not an affirmative one. “No, and…” is an equally powerful way to respond to a query with a valid rationale to help the requestor (is that a word?) understand why you just can’t do that thing right now. Learning to say no helps you stay focused on the jobs and responsibilities you committed to with your manager or supervisor. Learn to say no so you can continue to work on the things you care for, you’re passionate about and are great at. Don’t let people steer you off course with random requests, putting you at the danger of burning out.

🎧 Here’s a great podcast on avoiding burnout and a short one on the power of saying no.

And if plans and priorities change, then it should be through a conscious decision made along with your colleagues and managers; not as a spur of the moment thing. Be wary of becoming a person that says yes to everything people ask of you. That willingness to overplease others opens the door for work to take over the balance of your life. Which leads me to…

Life is more important than work. Always, no contest. Loving life and enjoying it with family, partners, and friends is the way to live. Being happy with your personal life and interacting with the outside world, nature and strangers will only make you a more complete person. So get out there, take a hike, have drinks with friends, read a book and go have dinner with your wife (and order those darn Brussels sprouts with 🥓 bacon).

You will likely have many jobs throughout your career, but you’ll only ever have one life. Having a healthy personal life will make you a better designer. Learning to listen will make you a better teammate. Being attuned to social issues will make you more empathetic towards the end-users you’re going to design for. When work gets busy, and it will, remember to take breaks. Get up and walk around. Talk to your colleagues, make small chat in an elevator ride, thank people at the grocery store, the coffee shop, the DMV. Stay grounded on your human relationships as they will be the single source of your growth as a person. Only when you feel fulfilled and happy in your personal life will you be able to give your all to your work.

This doesn’t mean that you need to do half-assed work and be careless. On the contrary, you need to stay healthy and sane so that you can be the best designer you can be.

Maintaining your sanity is the best thing you can do for your team, and it is an important way to help others fulfill their ambitions and reach their goals.

I recently read a quote that struck me: “One cannot be a good leader without first being a good person.”

This thought encompasses everything you need to remember. Be nice, be thoughtful and be considerate with others. Then do the same towards work. You can be equally committed towards life and work but draw a line between them. Learn from life experiences and apply them to your creative process but try and avoid taking work home or bringing home to work. If somebody expects you to break that balance and give work your utmost priority, at the detriment of personal quality of life, then it’s time to re-evaluate your position.

🔊 Here’s my favorite podcast on setting boundaries between work–life priorities.

I wrote this article within 30 minutes of my colleague’s prompt. I only say this to show that of all the things I could have responded with, none of them ended up being about design tools or skills. Nothing came to mind about how to better use Sketch or run a fluid workshop or build a better user story. Ultimately, as designers we deal with people’s needs—whether of our users or our teammates—and these were the suggestions that came to mind. Well, onwards and forwards. Thanks for reading and please connect with me and send me your feedback.

🍻 Special thanks to Robyn Johnson for making these words make some sense and to all the people who’ve helped me realize these lessons over my years at IBM. Your wisdom won’t be forgotten. 🤗

Esteban Pérez-Hemminger is a husband, cat dad, and design thinker living and working in Austin, TX. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent my employer’s priorities or opinions.

Puerto Rican, avid collaborator, pun aficionado and designer with a habit of failing. Currently: Senior Interaction Designer @ Google, Austin TX

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