My friend, Karen Cheng, posted today about how to get a great design job in 6 months without going to design school. Reading that post reminded me of the tremendous amount of respect I have for Karen.What she doesn’t mention in her post is that she possesses a scary amount of focus and dedication to any cause she pursues and wins at life simply by working harder than anyone else. I don’t know if any of her advice is replicable because I don’t know anyone else who could accomplish what she did in 6 months. I don’t want to give anything away but this is not the last time you will see something truly impressive come from her…
But I was chatting with her online tonight and it had me thinking of how different our two paths into design were. My first inkling that there was a world of design came from serendipitously picking up The Design of Everyday Things at a used bookstore during my 3rd year of university (junior year of college for Yanks). There are a few books I’ve encountered in my life that change on a deep level the basic way I see the world and reading DOET was as if scales had fallen from my eyes. For the first time, I understood that built artifacts could be evaluated and come short in that evaluation. From that day on, every poor interaction I had pained me, every stupid decision made by the designer of a product had me gasping in disbelief at their obliviousness and lack of consideration. In short, I noticed.
Don Norman devotes, I think, half a chapter or so of his book to bathrooms and how the myriad of poorly thought out decisions hamper and stymie the user along every step of the way. One peculiar side-effect of this has been my ongoing and deep abiding fascination with bathrooms. To me, bathrooms represent a playground of egregiously & aggressively bad UI. The basic bathroom works fine, it’s when you push beyond that where the bad things happen.
So for the last 10 years, I’ve performed a UX critique of every bathroom I’ve ever been in. I’ve seen the thousand different ways people have found to fuck up the basic bathroom. I’ve found taps which are impossible to guess how they turn on, basins that are guaranteed to splash the user, soap dispensers with 3 different decoy pseudo-buttons that people press fruitlessly every single time, even door handles that somehow manage to fail at the job of being door handles. My favorite bathrooms ever have been in upscale buildings that seem to have had their budget cut early in the process. My theory is that bathrooms are where architects sublimate their frustrations at being hampered at every turn by conservative clients and budget constraints by indulging in their wildest design fantasies. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not but I do know it’s been pretty good at guiding me to some of the best (worst) bathrooms I’ve ever seen.
10 years of critiquing bathrooms and microwaves, doors and chairs, signage and menus and every other artifact of the built environment has lead me to an interesting place. Unlike Karen, I draw like a 5 year old, I’m clumsy with photoshop and I still struggle with basic information architecture and flows. Karen after 6 months was almost certainly more employable than me after 10 years. But show me a product and I can dissect it out for you like a surgeon. I can slice and dice it on every axis and articulate where it’s gone wrong on a deep level. I can push deep and then push even deeper and discover the soul of a product and then take all of those jiggling, loose parts that I just destroyed and recast it into something that is more honest, that more better expresses the essence of what this product was meant to be. Of this skill, I am most sure of.
It’s been 10 years since I first picked up DOET and those 10 years have changed my life. 10 years of critiquing bathrooms has lead me to where I am today and 10 more years of critiquing bathrooms will lead me to being an even better designer in 2023. If you asked me how to become a designer in 6 months, I’d have very little useful feedback. Instead, ask me how to be a designer in 10 years and I can tell you my story.