Design

On designer self-awareness

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Editor’s note: We’ve asked a handful of design leaders to respond to prompts each week. This week’s prompt was “What’s the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?” Check out Nick Schaden’s answer below, and submit your own response to our Medium publication.

Early in my career, I had a one-on-one session with my boss where I vented my frustrations about a tough design project I was in the middle of.

Years later, I’ve forgotten the problem, but I distinctly remember his response. He said I was bumping into a weak point in my skillset. It wasn’t easy, but I was learning my strengths and weaknesses in the process. As he put it, “Self-awareness is one of the greatest skills any designer can master.”

I’ve worked in technology for over a decade now, and those words still ring true. Awareness of our strengths and weaknesses is important for growth. It helps with team collaboration and even our day-to-day enjoyment of our work. 

“Self-awareness is one of the greatest skills any designer can master.”
Photo by #WOCinTech Chat.

Photo by #WOCinTech Chat.

Granted, self-awareness can be an asset in many careers. But it’s especially important for designers because design is fluid. It covers a wide spectrum of work, from user research to visual design. Generalist product designer roles are increasingly in demand because most design teams need designers to be flexible and jump in on multiple points along that design spectrum during a project’s life cycle.

That fluidity at work puts extra pressure on us, as designers, to define our strengths and weaknesses. When you know what you’re solid at, you’ll know what projects to push for during planning phases. As you’re assigned work that touches on your weak points, you’ll know to lean on others for support. 

“Sell what you’re best at, and you’ll have a better shot at moving up.”

It’s a common mantra that successful designers are often “T-shaped.” They have deep skill and mastery in select design areas with more generalist knowledge elsewhere. Self-aware designers know how close they are to that ideal and can shift accordingly for a new project or company. 

For example, a designer might be a masterful illustrator but has poor networking skills. They’ve got the depth but lack breadth. With strong awareness, they start pushing for more generalist projects where they have to interact with many people. Another example: an agency designer skips among different projects and skills. She’s aware her depth is lacking, and since she’s interested in research, she takes courses in user research and usability testing. 

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Knowing your strengths and gaps gets you hired and promoted. We remember candidates for their standout strengths, and we often hire to fill gaps. If you sell what you’re best at, while being forthright about your areas of growth, you’ll have a better shot at moving up.

Self-awareness also helps with outward confidence and charisma. I’ve known designers (myself included) screw up a great project or job without understanding what went wrong until well after the fact. They had the skills, but they failed to project how they were skilled until it was too late. 

Self-awareness is a critical first step to avoid this. When you know you’re good at something, you speak from a position of authority and clarity. You can proactively help others. And subsequently, you’re more likely to be on a team and project that matches what you’re after. When something isn’t your strong suit, you’re humble enough to ask others for assistance.

Admittedly, understanding yourself is only one of many factors in a design career. But without it, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

This post represents my personal views.

More responses to this prompt

Author

Nick Schaden
Nick is a UI engineer and designer at Square, where he contributes to web initiatives across the company. He was formerly web platform lead at Pocket, a popular save for later service. Prior to Square and Pocket, Nick worked in technology and design at Animoto, Gucci, and Goldman Sachs. He loves coffee, electronic music, and 80s action movies.

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