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The under-appreciated art of taking a break from design

4 min read
Sean Blanda  •  May 23, 2019
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One of the cruelties of designing digital products is that you can watch the metrics tick up and “know” that there are actual human beings there using a thing you’ve made. But it’s not quite the same as seeing people interact with your product in person.

That’s where Jacob Styburski found himself in 2014. Then a product designer for a financial services app, he found himself searching for another way.

“I was wanting to have a deeper connection with our community,” he says. “I feel very blessed and lucky to work and do the work that I do, but at times I personally feel disconnected from the physicality of it.”

And that’s when, thanks to a visit to Texas in 2016, Jacob took his barbecue sabbatical the following year. It was a chance to go from pixels to pork and step aside from the rapidly-changing design world to the slow cooking art of American barbecue.

Jacob and his wife Catherine at Revenge BBQ in Irvington, New York.

As product design careers become more standardized (and more in demand) mid-career sabbaticals like Jacob’s will become more of a possibility. Companies like Automattic and Buffer offer their employees paid sabbaticals every few years. And as digital transformation takes hold in every industry, a gap in a talented product designer’s resume isn’t a blocker to future employment—if it ever was.

For Jacob, his stint running a barbecue joint led to a refreshed viewpoint on his design work and a job as VP of design and UX at GrubHub. There, using InVision, he is now using digital products to help restaurant owners like himself and communities like his. Meanwhile, the restaurant is stable, with three full-time employees.

We spoke with Jacob about his year-long break to learn more about what it’s like to hang up the mouse and keyboard for a bit to focus on a passion project, his advice for other designers seeking to do the same, and why the success of the restaurant is secondary to its impact on himself, his family, and his local community.

Know what you’re optimizing for

For Jacob and his family, they were looking to connect with their community. As they were raising their son (whose middle name, Revenge, is the namesake of the family restaurant) Jacob found himself thinking of how he could connect with the people of Irvington, New York, a suburb of New York City.

“I kept asking myself: What are the experiences you are trying to get from your life?” he says.

If you’re reading this before lunch, we apologize.

And that’s when he saw some of his values of openness and connection reflected in other folks in the barbecue space.

“Barbecue really spoke to me in that there is space in the heart of that community,” he says. “There is a very deep passion for sharing knowledge and like I think the better and more confident someone is in the barbecue space that way more open they are.”

“The entire cooking process is very meaningful,” he continues. “You can’t be checking your phone or doing other things. You have to be very present in that space in order for it to be of high quality.”

As the idea became more of a possibility, Jacob evolved from experimenting on his own to visiting Texas A&M for a short intensive barbecue course known as “Camp Brisket” and an internship with Russell Roegels at Roegels BBQ in Houston. The combination of food, community, and collaboration convinced him that this was the right next step for his life.

“[Russell] put me to work and I just got caught the bug. It was like I was compelled, I had to do this thing.”

I know, I know. It’s easy to gloss over any part of a “I quit my job!” story. This wasn’t as straightforward as that, as Jacob leaving his full-time gig was the result of lots of conversations with his wife, who remained at her own design job full time.

“It was nerve racking. I’m not trying to sugarcoat that.”

Jacob Styburski
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They knew that a restaurant likely wouldn’t result in a huge financial return, but it would be fulfilling and a means of connecting with their neighbors. “It was nerve racking. I’m not trying to sugarcoat that, but we certainly had very specific and practical conversations about what we would be willing to invest both time and money.”

Your skills as a designer translate to other fields

It’s easy to think that once you remove the screen that designers have to start from scratch. But the design process and all of the empathy, hustle, and flexibility that requires leads itself to other endeavors.

“For the restaurant, we certainly did journey maps and we did a fair amount of prototyping and testing,” he says. “Design is not a special snowflake or unicorn, it’s a problem-solving methodology.”

He and his staff would wait in line, order, and go through the entire process endlessly to tweak and hone the kind of in-person experience he wanted in his space. That’s when he noticed the little details that can make or break a customer’s visit. Things like a weird glare on the menu board or a napkin dispenser blocking the view from a table.

“As a business owner, it made a ton of sense for those things to be there,” he says. “But as a customer, it didn’t. You still need to come through and literally eat your own food.”

Another example: Jacob estimates his staff experimented and iterated with more than 20 versions of mac and cheese, accommodating to factors such as unit cost and “Does it dry out if it sits on the customer’s table for too long?”

“There’s a lot just understanding and underestimating what it requires for food to be delicious and amazing over a long period of time,” he says.

The Mac and Cheese recipe that ended up ruling them all.

Your “diversion” can actually lead to more design work

After nearly a year at the smoker, Jacob returned to the design world to work at GrubHub. He still picks up weekend shifts and fills in whenever there is a need. Seeing his story in reverse, the journey seems obvious. But in the moment, it wasn’t something Jacob planned. It was something only made possible by his break as a restaurant owner. By taking a “leap of faith” according to his values of community, diligence, and empathy Jacob was eventually able to find work that matched up to the “side project.”

It’s a case for bringing your full self to your work, even if it leads to some ambiguity in the short term. Now, Jacob uses his own place as a guinea pig and it helps him empathize with GrubHub customers.

“It was a match made in heaven,” he says noting he always had a desire to continue to experiment with how and where design is applied. “Experiences are the things that you kind of keep with you [in your life]. And so I think there was a deep faith that embracing this experience would be rewarding and enjoyable.”

The pulled pork sandwich from Revenge BBQ.

Whatever you do, do it for you

If reading Jacob’s story has you thinking of finally tackling that long-held side business idea Jacob suggests being extremely thoughtful at first by considering the emotional outcome you are looking for. Take those reasons and question them carefully.

“Once you get your heart on that and it feels true to you, then all of the other stuff can get solved,” he says. “When you’re there on day 42 and you haven’t slept much, that sense of purpose is what keeps you going.”

He noted that you can always trust yourself to figure out the tactical things. Like, say, how does someone get the health department to schedule an inspection? And especially if you live in the startup world, your inclination will be to think of funding, or marketing, or loads of tactical things you can and will do.

But instead, trust yourself to figure that out as they come and instead look at what values you uniquely hold and make sure those are represented in whatever you do next.

“One person’s brisket is another person’s ice cream,” he says.