Many of us in the tech industry are megalomaniacs. We want to build the best and the biggest. We’re always designing our apps with scalability in mind. We tend to design for the largest possible audience.
What we don’t realize though, is that many of the most well-known products didn’t start with global ambitions. Rather, they addressed a small, local need first and grew from there.
So if you really want to develop your skills and produce a truly creative product, you’ll be much better off checking your ego and starting small.
Stop inflating your ego
In the book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday uses past examples of famous figures—both successful and unsuccessful—to illustrate the adverse effects of the ego.
While Holiday writes to all industries, not just design, designers will learn a lot from him.
His book addresses the type of thinking that distracts us from designing a product for a small audience, which helps you and another 5 people instead of 100 million strangers.
Designing with your ego creates a product that’s diluted, unfocused, and bland. Consider these hugely successful products that didn’t give into big thinking in the beginning:
- Facebook was designed first for Harvard students, not for a billion people around the world. If Mark Zuckerberg designed Facebook for a billion people on day one, it would have failed. Facebook was online for 2 years before opening itself up to the general public.
- Uber was originally a black car service in San Francisco. Today, Uber has evolved from a local black car service, to a global ridesharing app, and now, to a service for lifestyle and logistics. In 2008, this wouldn’t have meant anything to anyone.
- Flickr began as a photo-sharing feature within an online game. Only after the product had been perfected did the team realize that it could be applied more broadly. In 2005, Flickr was acquired by Yahoo. Today, it has 51 million registered users.
“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.”
–Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy
Get out of your head!
Designers have a tendency to turn their life into a story. We write a fantastic narrative of our past with ourselves at the center (I helped design billion-dollar companies or I worked for insert massive startup here), and this distracts us from designing for reality.
We often produce concept work to develop or show off our abilities as designers.
What I’m suggesting isn’t to let your ego guide you toward producing a concept for another billion-dollar startup. These companies became the way they are over long periods of refinement and being patient. So we can only possibly provide an undeveloped opinion on redesigning their product.
The only reason that we might strive to design for the best brands is to fulfill our own career narratives.
As designers, we need to get out of our head and look at immediate local problems that call for unique design solutions. Not only will this direct our abilities toward solving real problems, but it’ll also make us better designers.
There are often many lessons and opportunities surrounding us. But if we’re caught up in the grandiose vision of our careers, these lessons will appear small or inconsequential—and we may miss them.
If you think that taking on a small project is demeaning to the potential scale of your work, get out of your head. Keep in mind that there’s no one to perform for. And quite frankly, fewer people are keeping tabs on your career than you may think. In fact, it’s likely that no one is. This can be hard to digest when you’re stuck inside your own head.
Don’t linger on past successes
When we reminisce about our past successes, we forget about the hours of work and execution that got us where we are today. So instead of dreaming about your story, get back to work and out of your head. Start a new page daily, and eliminate any ideas of grandeur.
“I was trapped so terribly inside my own head that I was a prisoner to my own thoughts.” – Ryan Holliday
Be a student
For your design work to grow, you have to be able to learn from criticism. Participating in the dialogue of design communities is valuable, but that can also shelter you from the lessons of reality.
The online design community is extremely supportive. It’s great that everyone can so easily join a conversation, but constantly looking for positive feedback won’t drive us to get better.
When you design for reality, people will be hard on your work.
Although it can be difficult to hear negative feedback, see it as an opportunity to learn. The designer who works for their ego will be defensive during these times and will likely reject the opinion of the offender. We must learn to accept such criticisms if we want our work to grow.
Related: 5 tips on taking design feedback
The feedback loop between the designer and the client can make products that neither party could have ever made on their own.
As designers, we need to realize that we can learn from the needs and conditions of a real project in order to make something new. Whereas, the feedback loop online often recycles the same content over and over again.
Thinking small and local
Okay, so you might be wondering where to start. Designing for reality sounds great, but how do I get that first project? Or, if work is slow, what can I do to continue to grow?
This is very much my point—that often the answer to this is to whip up some great redesigns, then post them online in the hope that they’ll lead to the next big thing. But how can you direct your energy to designing for real life instead?
Consider the challenge below.
Design for the very small
Instead of designing the next billion-dollar chat app, what if you designed a chat app for 5 moms? What would that look like? Do you think something original would come out of it if you just focused on them?
- What would your social network look like if it were designed for the people in your building?
- What would a payment service app look like for a farmer’s market?
- How might a calendar registry app work for a day care?
- Would a restaurant use a better interface for how they seat customers?
- Could high school teachers benefit from an app to communicate with parents?
- How might a to-do list work for a small family?
Let’s face it, it’s all about our ego. We design to get recognition instead of designing to solve a real problem for a small group of people.
I’d argue that only designing for a successful Dribbble shot is thinking too small. It satisfies our ego, but won’t get us anywhere. Would you have taken Facebook as a client when they were only addressing Harvard?
Focus your design
Gather 5 people in a niche and start designing a product just for them.
Don’t listen to your ego encouraging you to get likes and recognition. Focus on making the best possible product for those 5 people.
Here’s 6 points you should focus on.
- Involve real users in your designs as soon as possible
- Solicit feedback, and consider how your product can improve
- Don’t worry about scalability
- Kill aesthetics. Yes, the aesthetic side of the design feeds our ego. The first focus should be getting a few users.
- Avoid feature creep. Local problems can be complex too, but try to keep your solution simple.
- Make sure your ego doesn’t creep up on you. Every time you start to really love something you worked on, you should be wary. Your ego must be hiding behind your love.
Let’s work to kill our egos
Whatever is next for us—failure or success—we must always continue to remember to avoid our egos.
No matter what awaits us down the road, our egos will make everything more difficult.
However, failure is the one thing that our egos will help to make permanent, unless we’re willing to be students as we move forward, and learn from our mistakes.
We must take every moment as an opportunity to grow, not boost our careers.
Every great designer has experienced difficult times. You may just not realize it because all you see is their polished Dribbble accounts. What they likely aren’t telling you is that when they’ve failed—or found hardship—they take some kind of benefit from it.
Finally, keep in mind that many of the most successful people don’t spread their work and successes around. So, look for people in your design community who are quiet about their success, or failure, and see what you can learn from them.