About a month ago, I asked on Quora Why is there such a stunningly short supply of designers in Silicon Valley right now? This question lead to an amazing amount of high quality discussion, both in the answers to the question and in followup questions that it spawned. This question was also what provided sufficient impetus for Brian Gupton & I to start the Product Design Guild. Coming full circle, a followup question was asked today, What are some ways a designer could best take advantage of the short supply of designers? In answering it, I took the time to delve into a lot of the reasoning behind starting the Guild in the first place and also everything I had been learning since then. I thought it would be valuable to replicate this here:

In a market based economy, the most obvious short term tactics for a designer right now are:

  • Ask for more money
  • Ask for more responsibility

I’m going to argue actually that these are actually detrimental moves in the long run and that extreme imbalances in demand can, paradoxically, be bad for both designers and the design profession as a whole.

Demanding more compensation purely due to market conditions and not because you’re getting better as a designer means that you’re increasing the value captured:value delivered ratio. As this ratio approaches 1, you become an increasingly bad deal for smart companies and only companies ignorant enough to be overpaying for design are willing to hire you. This is an ultimately unsustainable practice which sours companies on the value of design and sets back the progress we’ve been making over the last few decades, demonstrating the importance of design as a a competitive business advantage.

You can see this happening already. Enthusiastic but way too junior designers are being offered “Lead (and only) Designer” roles at hot startups for lack of more experienced candidates. This may sound like a fantastic deal to the designer in the short term but they’re ultimately not ready for that role. The design that they produce are unrefined and immature, not delivering value to the company commensurate with their responsibilities. This ends up with both sides being unhappy and delivers a “poor user experience” to the company that impacts how they treat design in the future.

Instead, I counter-intuitively have the following advice: figure out a way to increase the total sum value of design in the world as a whole and your slice of the pie will rise commensurately.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues in the past month as we’ve been setting up the Product Design Guild. I’ve spent time talking to designers, entrepreneurs & investors and trying to understand how the Guild can best serve to help designers flourish.

What I think this means for designers in more concrete terms is:

  • Fight for design to have it’s rightful seat at the table. One advantage of designers being a hot commodity is that we can fight for real political change or threaten to walk. Rather than focusing on salary, focus on impact and choose companies which understand and respect design and let designers have the necessary independence & influence to make a meaningful change in the product.
  • Set aside time for education and self-improvement. As more and more responsibilities are piled on designers, it can be tough to carve out “non-productive” educational time. With tight deadlines approaching, it’s easy to efficiently crank out something you already know how to do for this next release and save the long term stuff for a later date. Except that later date is never going to come and you’ll realize that it’s 5 years later and you’re still churning out the exact same designs you were 5 years ago with your now rapidly obsoleting skill set. Designers need to push back against demands on their time and assign equal importance to growth as production. Use the clout you have now to fight against overly aggressive ship dates and over-demanding bosses. Take time to attend design events, read broadly, pursue creative hobbies and generally living an interesting & meaningful existence.
  • Leverage your talent as much as possible. This means focusing on trying to do more with what you have and being as efficient and effective as possible. Part of what differentiates experienced practitioners from novices in any field is a grace of action and conservation of motion. Only the minimum amount of effort is needed to accomplish a task and every action is streamlined down to it’s very essence. Be diligent about figuring out the most effective way to accomplish something. Learn all of the tricks and techniques that most effectively leverage the talent that you have. To this day, the best way of doing this is focused exposure to great talent. Jared Spool talked about this at the Warm Gun conference last month, junior sushi chefs in Japan go to work for master sushi chefs, doing scut work. Even though they never make sushi until very late in their apprenticeship, simply being around and observing master sushi chefs do their work is essential experience for becoming a master sushi chef. Similarly, junior designers should figure out a way to be exposed to experienced designers and simply observe how much more effortless design is when experience is gained. Without this knowledge, junior designers don’t even know what to strive for.
  • Recruit more great designers. It may seem paradoxical that bringing more competition for your job helps you in the long run but the demand for great designers is so extreme right now that even increasing the supply fourfold would not measurably affect your bargaining power. The current market is also extremely inefficient. In talking about this, many people both outside and also inside Silicon Valley are completely unaware of the extreme demand for designers. There are many capable designers locked up in big companies right now or working in other cities that could be persuaded to take the leap if given the right push. Similarly, there are a lot of people in product management, engineering, art & content production that have design aspirations but no clear path to becoming a designer. Recruiting all of these people into the design profession by selling how it’s both satisfying and rewarding can is only going to influence the power of design.
  • Take care of the design ecosystem. Historical trends in the last decade have not been kind to the design ecosystem. Design school education is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the fast paced and unique needs of Silicon Valley. Smaller team sizes means that many designers are now working as the sole designer on a team, without the ability to collaborate or learn from other designers. Even for companies that can still afford to maintain a design team, lower job loyalty means that mentorship becomes a losing economic proposition. Taking away productivity from your senior designers for mentorship only to have your junior designer take off and apply that learning at their next company makes you feel stupid the second or third time it happens. Where are we going to get our next generation of designers if this continues to be the case? The only way to fix this is to take time to contribute back to the design eco-system. If you’re a senior designer, take the time to mentor junior designers, even if you never directly benefit. If you’re a junior designer, work in co-operation with other designers instead of in competition. For designers overall, push to be less proprietary about your work and offer to share what you can with anyone who is interested.
  • Finally, spread the message. One designer, working alone can make an individual difference. One designer, mobilizing a thousand can affect real change. To make companies take notice and effect meaningful reform in the role of designers can only happen if the hear a clear and consistent message, coming from all angles. Designers are in a unique position right now where they hold a lot of potential power due to the extreme demand for designers. We should be taking advantage of this to make design a valued and sustainable profession that can keep us all happily employed in the long run.

The Product Design Guild is our attempt at addressing the issues that I’ve just outlined. Our ambitions are small to begin with but everything I’ve articulated is something that’s very much present in our thoughts as we figure out how to grow and develop the guild. If you’re interested in finding out more or want to participate, I encourage you to visit http://www.productdesignguild.com. I believe we’ve managed to strike upon a very compelling concept and I’m passionate to see the Guild affect meaningful positive change in the design ecosystem.

  • Anonymous

    I’m very interested to hear how the Product Design Guild works out – it sounds like it’d be fun to try, though I can think of a few practical issues that might be hard to surmount.. You’re going to report on how your prototype turns out, right?

    As for your argument above, I’m curious to hear your take on designers using this not as an opportunity to improve the design ecosystem in their current company or to simply make more money, but to use the flexibility implied by the current market to shift companies (that is, rewarding ones who value design more), or start consulting and/or private design house companies to do design work by contract. It seems that shifting companies rewards companies who ‘get’ design much more reliably than fighting internal politics to achieve the same end, but I think it probably depends on the individual situations. More interesting to me, though, is using it as an opportunity to build one’s own company doing design on a consulting or contractual basis. What do you think are the pros and cons of this approach? Does this serve the individual designers, do you think, and what do you think the implications are for the design ecosystem as you describe it?

    Keen to hear more..

    • Hang

      The next Social Software Sunday post will be a reflection on designing a design guild :).

      I, personally don’t think contractors are the best way for design to progress in the future. Contractors are great for filling in specific design holes in the team but I don’t think they’re capable for infusing design vision into a product over the long term. So much of what makes good design is the willingness to take a stand and be bold. You need to be willing to have a 3 hour shouting match with the VP of Marketing about why adding such a feature would be stupid. Full time employees with skin in the game are capable of doing that. It doesn’t make sense for a contractor to do that.

      I think what ultimately is the best tool for motivating companies is fear. If they see their competitors hiring top notch designers because of a design friendly culture, that’s what’s going to prompt them to make wrenching changes.

      • Anonymous

        Cool. Looking forward to it.

        What about for individuals? Do you think consulting / contracting is a good approach for individuals engaged in design? It seems like a good way to go if you’re in a situation where you’re working with a company that doesn’t want to pay for a fulltime staff of several designers over the long term, but could use a team of people during the ideation phase of the project. A sort of hybrid approach, I guess.

        You mention having skin in the game – I completely agree with that, so maybe another approach for designers might be to make precisely that argument – instead of arguing for money, how about arguing for equity? It seems like that would be a particularly good idea for designers in the small company situation where a full design team is impractical.

        • Hang

          It’s not so much skin in the game financially so much as knowing that you’re going to have to live with the impact of your design over the long term & that you’ll be working with the people who have to live with your decisions. As a contractor, once you leave that engagement, it’s hard to care psychologically about the fate of that company anymore.

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