I’ve been designing and developing online and offline media for the last ten years. I have been paid a living wage to do this work. And I still feel anxious when someone asks, “What do you do?” and I reply “I’m a designer.”
I wonder, in those few seconds, how they fill in the gaps. I imagine hearing “I’m a designer” is akin to hearing “I’m a technician.” There are a million kinds of technicians – for your car, for your manicure, for your sonogram machine, for your theater lighting – and there are at least as many designers, I’m sure. I always worry that people hear me say “Designer” and think, “oh, he’s full of shit…what’s he ‘designing’?” Oddly enough, I don’t get the same feeling about the word “Developer.” Maybe I assume there’s less ambiguity for a “developer” than a “designer,” or that they take it at face value.
But why, though? I do design things for a living. I’m not rearranging people’s living rooms or sketching out haute couture coats and handbags. I’m designing websites and apps and magazine ads and business cards and logos and emails…I get a brief, I work things out, I submit them to the client, they approve, we both keep going until we’re done with each other. Someone cuts me a check and I use that money for goods and, sometimes, services. If that’s the entire process of design and I do that for a living, why do I get such a sourpuss on every time I describe myself as a designer?
I think it’s because I’m not a typical designer…which is to say, a stereotypical designer. When I picture a “Designer,” I see a person with a very crisp haircut, sitting on a white couch, reading a picture book about Rem Koolhaas. I see someone who enjoys kickstarting expensive salt pots and spends a lot of money on lamps. I have a sufficient number of lamps and I wouldn’t dream of getting a white couch because I spill nearly everything I eat. My salt is salty but the pot I keep it in is a little bamboo number I bought at the grocery store. I do not own a form-fitting black turtleneck and have no desire to, as my body is lumpy and unremarkable. How can I compete with this mystery person, whose name is probably “Kürte” or something like that? I can’t, really. I realize now I shouldn’t try, as this imaginary person is fictional. And very, very sexy. But if we’re both designing things for a living, are we not both, in fact, designers?
The Potato Man Cometh
While Kürte sits confidently on his all-white sofa, leafing through his architecture book and gently stroking the folds of his Jobsian turtleneck, I’m sitting in my hand-me-down computer chair at my non-standing desk, drinking coffee and trying to figure out if I’m any good at React. (Answer: No…not yet, anyway.) I’m wearing flannel because it’s the razzle-dazzle camouflage of doughy boys like me, there to baffle the eye. “Yes, he’s fat, but how fat? The mind reels!” onlookers say.
I have my iPad Pro and my Apple Pencil. I have my Pixelmator and Sketch. I have my Axure and my Evernote and my Google Docs and my absolutely paralyzing self-doubt.
And I have my truth: that I am a potato man. And that isn’t an insult.
Potatoes are, as Marge Simpson once affectionately said, “neat”. They’re not consistent shapes but they’re always “potato shaped”. They’re the color of dirt, or the color of slightly-gold dirt, or the color of slightly-red dirt. They’re not ugly, per se. I wouldn’t rush to call them pretty, but they have their charms.
And when you think about a potato, you think about french fries, which are one of the greatest foods we have on this earth. You think of mashed potatoes and curly fries and home fries and hash browns and potatoes au gratin and crab chips (which are chips with Old Bay on them, if you’ve never had them, make it a priority today). So many pleasures, so simply made from one little tuber. The lack of them nearly killed Ireland. The abundance of them made vodka possible. They saved Matt Damon when he got stuck on Mars. They’re the fourth-largest commercial crop in the world and dammit, they’re just so impressive when you think about them. You can rig one up and power a clock and if you don’t think that’s impressive well you just go back to your ivory tower because you’re not cut out for the REAL world.
When I think about Kürte, my fictional ideal designer, I picture them as more of a sushi person. Sushi is wonderful, and I love it, and it has its place. I don’t think there’s a way to display sushi that’s unappealing. I think “appealing” is a key ingredient in sushi – if it’s ugly, you’re not really eating sushi, are you? A gorgeous piece of sashimi tastes a hundred times better than some random hunk you cut off of a filet of the exact same kind of fish. If we eat with our eyes, sushi makes up for its lack of volume with its visual delight.
But we here in the western world don’t typically eat sushi every day. It’s more of a special occasion kind of food, or at least it is to me. On the flip side, I can’t think of a day this week that I haven’t eaten some form of potato. They have great taste and they go with everything.
And that, dear reader, is how I hope to be thought of as a designer:
“He’s got great taste and he goes with everything.”
For all the reluctance I have to be called “a designer,” I will happily and unashamedly say that I have taste. I can look at things and form an opinion and make a well-thought-out argument for why I do and don’t like them, or what about them should be changed. That seems small but it’s 95% of the job. And you don’t have to be a miserable bastard to make your opinion known. You can do it in a constructive, actionable way other than “This is stupid” or “I hate this”. If you CAN’T do it in a way the recipient can actually do something with, well, you might not be that great of a designer.
I try and cultivate my taste by observing the work of others in my field and by really savoring that which I enjoy. I also try and pay attention to the things my wife likes. She’s very smart and she, too, has good taste. And more importantly, she doesn’t really throw things out; when she finds a new style, she works the old one into the new one and dovetails trends together. I like that about her. I think it’s rubbed off on me because I never do “clean sweeps”. The things I liked ten years ago, I mostly still enjoy today, but I compartmentalize them better now. I don’t reject anything because it all has its place.
In my mind, Kürte is always working on a hot new app or a life-changing product launch or the next smart phone. I wish I was, too, but that’s like being an actor who shows up in laundry detergent commercials saying, “I wish I was Clooney.” I mean, everyone WANTS to be Clooney. That’s not the point, though. The actor in the commercial? He’s in the commercial. He’s doing the job of acting, even if it’s just as simple as smelling a clean white sock and smiling a satisfied smile. Even if I’m not working on the great big Kürte-style projects, I’m still a designer. I do the work every day. I do it with a wide variety of people and I do it on a number of projects and I do it for a living wage and I don’t have to be ashamed. I’m not Clooney, I’m not Kürte – I’m Jimmy. I’m a Potato Man. I cut the potatoes, I peel the potatoes, and I serve the potatoes. Sometimes they’re a gorgeous rosette with a little sprig of chive for garnish, and sometimes they’re waffle fries. Neither is bad. Working to make a bad thing good, or a good thing better, is a real joy and I shouldn’t shy away from saying, “this is what I do, I’m good at it and happy to do it.”
So, there you go. I’m Jimmy Marks. I am a designer. I would really love a big plate of steak fries right now. How about you?