A Letter to the Newly Minted Designer
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”
You just graduated. Or maybe you have a job, but you are thinking of change. And you see me at some conference and you ask me for advice “Should I join a consulting firm, or go in-house?” As the coiner of the phrase “innies and outies” and one who has done both, and went sideways as well, here is what I think. It’s worth every penny you paid for it.
First, you should join a fairly big consultancy. Something like Hot, Adaptive Path, Method, Ideo, what have you. Those are random names; you have to do the research to figure out which one is right for you. Working at a consulting house is a lot like foundations in art school; you see a lot of stuff.
Here’s why you start with a big consultancy
- You will work for a wide variety of companies. This is incredibly useful because companies vary in ways you cannot imagine. and you’ll start to recognize what kind of companies you like, and which you cannot stand. You’ll also get to fall in love with certain industries; maybe it’s games, maybe it’s speadsheet programs. Different strokes, baby.
- You will likely learn a variety of techniques. You may have learned some in class, but there is nothing like seeing personas epicly fail to catch on in a company, or wireframes look like gibberish to the general manager to teach you how to really use those techniques well. Plus if you are lucky, you’ve got folks pulling rabbits out of their hats you didn’t see in class: user diaries! Participatory design! Consultancies LOVE process and LOVE techniques and LOVE documentation (they bill for it). It’s a great place to learn some good formal methods that work.
- A big house will have old people who know magic stuff. As a junior member of a team, you may get to see a senior designer convince a CEO to change his schedule. You may get to see a senior user research get an engineer to fight hard for the user’s rights. You may get to see a senior project lead head off a bloodthirsty battle between disciplines into a clever compromise that optimizes for user joy. (Actually, you have a shot at this in-house as well. I think there is a higher number of them in consultancies, though)
Next, after two-four years, you switch to a good, established web company that makes great products. This is like choosing a major. You now get to go deep and really learn one space incredibly well. Maybe it’s search at Google, maybe it’s shopping at amazon. Here’s why
- You finally get to learn why the awesome stuff you designed didn’t launch. And boy, there is a long list of reasons. And you’ll get to see it in technicolor. Better yet, maybe help prevent something horrid from launching.
- You get to understand a subject in a way you never did as a in-and-out consultant. Deep, subtle things about user behavior, A/B testing results and what moves numbers, and even cool stuff about the tech that runs your designs, like how indexing is done. And once you understand it, you can influence it.
- You’ll also learn more about collaboration, group dynamics and politics than you’d expect, since you just saw a ton of it at the consultancy. Because watching people over a long period teaches you surprising things; for example the guy who swore your idea would never be viable comes around to your thinking three months later… (and doesn’t remember it’s your idea.)
- Epic empathy for team mates. That product manager who kept blocking you who you swore was an asshole? Well, eventually you find out they are under dreadful pressure to hit a number this quarter, and felt your idea was going to take engineers off a project that would hit the number. He’s not a blocking asshole, he’s a guy trying to keep the product afloat! And then you partner and make something even better than you could have alone.
- You might change how a company is organized, and how it behaves. This takes time. Every consultant who comes in with their magic list of recommendations can shake things up, but real change comes from the long, slow push of the people who work there every day.
So it comes down to this generalization
Consulting makes you a fox, inhouse makes you a hedgehog. Big companies teach you to focus on your craft, little companies teach you how to run a business. It is incredibly useful for you, you designer, to try out as many as you can. You will learn a huge number of tools, and you will learn about yourself. And then you can make some choices about what you want to do.
Now I know you are looking up my Linkedin profile, and saying, hey that’s not what you did!
But not all answers lie in Linkedin profiles– I am actually a superfox.
I graduated in fine arts. I painted and waited tables for years before the web. (waiting tables is an amazing teacher, and deserves its own essay)
I joined a startup sure, but although I left it as a IA, I was a front-end developer for most of my career there. I consulted at Hot, I consulted with Carbon IQ which was my own company (with partners, hi Gabe and Noel!), I went in-house at Yahoo, and left to consult again, and then had a product start-up which was awesome until it wasn’t. And then I did Product and general managing… and along the way wrote a book, founded a magazine, founded and chaired a professional org. Basically I have professional ADD.
But I know a whole lot of little things, which allows me to make weird and useful connections, such as why Mies van der Rohe or Will Wright have something to say about how we build websites.
But those guys are hedgehogs, and they are great because they went so very deep.
My final piece of advice: ignore all of this if you fall in love. You see a company you adore, you frigging join it. Because you are young and you have a get-out-of-jail-free card while you don’t have a spouse and kids and a mortgage. You cannot ruin your life unless you get thrown in jail, or alienate everyone by being a jerk (and I’m not even sure about the second, thinking of a few CEO’s I know).
There is no bad choice for you, there is only your choice. I just recommend you give yourself a chance and find out what you love.
Erin Malone on Planning Your Future