Eric Karjaluoto

How to Avoid Becoming an Obsolete Designer

Open a design annual from 15–20 years ago, and you see how quickly design dates. The ‘90s are particularly notable for this: The tiny text, distressed textures, and random approaches that once looked progressive now seem contrived and awkward. (Design historians may look back upon that time as little more than an embarrassing footnote.) Sadly, in visiting the sites of some of these same designers, you find that little has changed since then. Much like that cautionary tale of the high-school quarterback and prom queen, some seem determined to bask in the warm glow of past glories.

I see this in many designers 10 years my senior. In fact, even some of the designers I most admired (and whom were celebrated, at the time) are now only relevant for their prior accomplishments, and out of a sense of nostalgia. In spite of how innovative some once seemed, many stopped growing. In doing so, they locked themselves into an old model—from which they are unlikely to ever escape.

Before you dismiss this argument as small-minded ageism, I’ll add some shape to this discussion. I acknowledge that there are many excellent designers who’ve been practicing since I thought acid wash was cool. I know that these folks possess knowledge and experience I’d be lucky to learn from. Moreover, I’m envious of the what many designers my senior have created. At the same time, even a peripheral survey indicates that the number of practicing—and relevant—designers in the marketplace seems to drop substantially in each age bracket. (I bet that for every ten designers in their 20s, there is only one 50-year-old counterpart.)

Part of this is because good designers move on. They get promoted, becoming art directors and creative directors. Some recognize that they like nurturing young talent, and take a teaching post at a design institute. Others want to steer their own ship, so they start their own studios. Yet others recognize the portability of their skills, witness opportunity elsewhere, and move out of the design industry altogether. A bright design mind is adaptable, and needn’t be restrained to a life of leading stakeholder discussions, iterating on visual systems, and producing associated documentation.

Nevertheless, there’s a kind of Bermuda Triangle lying in wait for practicing designers. Few appreciate that they’re nearing this sneaky apparition until they’ve been wholly subsumed by its draw. We can approximate the location of this barrier somewhere between a designer’s 40th and 50th year. And while this trap doesn’t take down all designers, it is responsible for the professional demise of a great many.

This snare works for two reasons: Most designers who’ve reached their mid-career have developed a capable skill-set. As such, they don’t feel as great a need to learn as they once did. Additionally, they (rightly) realize that there’s more to life than just design. So, they coast for a while. They rely on the clients whose trust they’ve already established. Additionally, they take longer holidays, spend more time with their kids, and perhaps even find a little time for a hobby.

And such decisions should be OK. In any other pursuit, they would be: You learn a craft, practice diligently, gain expert knowledge, and then take back some life balance. However, design changes so fast that such a pause can arrest one’s career. Not only does style shift, but so do approaches, procedures, and vernacular. For example, an interaction designer who stopped practicing 5 years ago would face a steep learning curve to become proficient today. So, while you might feel entitled to coast for a while—particularly after all your hard work—doing so for even a few years might leave you dated, and unable to secure the work and contracts you once did.

While my perspective may appear alarmist in nature, I don’t look upon this situation that way. I’m not proposing that you come with an expiry date; actually, I’m arguing that being conscious of obstacles allows you to implement behaviors that mitigate the possibility of obsolescence. Unlike the computer you work at, you aren’t locked into hardware that one day is unable to run the newest software. Instead, the real threat you face is in getting so comfortable with how things are that you become reluctant to upgrade.

I recognize this same failing in myself. Familiar experiences are easier than foreign ones, and I too find myself defending proven methods over newer ones, especially when these seem like gimmicks. Part of my hesitation is about being efficient; I don’t want to slow down on client work while I’m noodling with new approaches. Nevertheless, my future capability and efficacy are dependent on such exploration and tests. Therefore, I need to force myself into new situations, in order to keep my operating system current—perhaps even a step ahead of my contemporaries.

This need to continually upgrade starts with small habits. It means leaving Photoshop’s Scrubby Zoom on—no matter how infuriating it may be—until I understand why Adobe’s designers added this function. It involves trying new devices and operating systems to continually experience new approaches and think like a beginner. It extends to the music I listen to, the books I read, and the people I talk to—so I continually witness different sounds, ideas, and perspectives.

The upgrade extends to working processes. Instead of resting on what’s familiar, I’m varying the way I structure project flows, approach design builds, and manage projects. I’m considering and testing approaches like the NoPSD movement to understand if they can be integrated to work better than our current methods. I’m even asking whether there are more viable alternatives to the localized file systems and trusted technologies we currently use.

More than this, though, I am consciously challenging many of my life choices and engrained assumptions. I’m asking what a work day might look like, contemplating alternate schedules, and starting to reject client projects that don’t afford opportunities for new learning. I’m asking how I could increase my understanding by varying where our company operates from: even exploring whether our studio could become mobile for two or three months out of the year.

Little of this is easy. Instead of being linear, this progression is a slow, dirty kind of muddling. I embrace new approaches for a day or two, and then fall back into familiar habits. However, there’s a net gain, regardless of how cumbersome the individual steps may be. Meanwhile, I remind myself that I can’t lose what I already know. If a new approach fails to produce results, I can roll back to proven methods at any time.

By forcing uncomfortable solutions I more fully experience life, discover new ways of thinking, and implement a growth-focused lifestyle. I’m not interested in acquiring luxury items, advancing status, or gaining accolades. I just want to keep learning—because when I do so, I am most alive. The (rather pleasant) byproduct of this outlook, is that it sets me up to do work that’s suitable for this time, and might even “future-proof” me.

You don’t become obsolete when you pass some arbitrary mark on a calendar; you wither when you close yourself off to new and unfamiliar possibilities. (I’d argue that this perspective extends beyond professional practice and affects the way you live.) In making intelligent decisions, a designer should continue to improve. By combining skill, applied experience, and a propensity for diving into new learnings—instead of avoiding them—you increase your ability to achieve insight and produce design that functions as intended. And, instead of becoming a dinosaur, you make your life one of perpetual discovery.

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