Staying Relevant as a Digital Designer

My family does movie nights on Friday evenings; we all sit in our living room and pick a movie to watch from one of the online services. Before the movie, we see trailers for other movies or YouTube videos. As my kids get older, the latter have become a bigger part of the program. Most are music videos made by kids not much older than mine: The Haschak sisters, MattyBRaps, and so on.

Looking at these videos, I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I’m amazed at the production values, the kids’ talent, and the technology that’s made it possible for them to have a global stage. On the other hand, I feel old. I like the music, but don’t recognize it. I’m compelled to show my kids the music videos I grew up with, to share that part of my life with them. Of course, they don’t want to see that. Why would they?

I gently acquiesce to this music which is all-new to me… and find myself enjoying it. It’s so much more sophisticated than the stuff I heard when I was a boy! But the two have much in common. The songs still have recognizable structures, rhythms, melodies, themes. They’re are still about as long as a 45 rpm single. (Do the kids understand why?)

I’ve seen lots of stuff come and go in my twenty-five-year career as a digital designer. There was a time, for example, when designing for the web called for carefully selecting colors from a very limited palette and using “invisible” one-pixel image files to lay out graphics in HTML tables. I spent a lot of time learning the ins-and-outs of one-pixel-bitmap layouts and web color palettes. These constraints are meaningless to today’s digital designers. They’re not very useful in my day-to-day work either. It’s now a (mostly) useless skill.

As I grow older, these are questions I think about: What must I do to stay relevant in my field? What should I be paying attention to? Current technologies can do astonishing things that would’ve knocked my socks off twenty-five years ago. And there are so many of them! Given all my responsibilities, there’s no way for me to know about all of them in detail.

But beneath the surface, structural and conceptual concerns are no less urgent today than they were back then. These concerns are likely to also be important in the future. Evergreen questions. What distinctions does this information environment impose on this context? How do these distinctions affect the experience and effectiveness of the people using the place? How do they impact the business that’s commissioned me to design the environment?

Focusing on the structural and systemic aspects of information environments allows me to add exceptional value to design challenges even if I don’t know all the details of how various user interface implementations work. (As with so many pace layer models, the lower layers have greater leverage over outcomes in the long term.) It also allows me to appreciate the surface layers of the work — much as my understanding the components of pop music helps me appreciate the YouTuber’s art — and communicate effectively with the people (like my kids) for whom they’re the norm.