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Design is empathy.

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This is pretty “stream of thought”. I’m going Jack Kerouac on this article.

I’ll be honest, I’ve spent the good half of the past decade designing things for the validation and admiration of others. I wanted my work to be loved and adored by other designers. I wanted to be invited to speaking events and talk about my unhealthy obsession of typography and my collection of vintage photographs I’ve been keeping in ridiculously organized files for the past 5 years. I tried to put out pieces that would get some kind of attention or try to stay ahead of the tech world so I could be on top of the latest trends, the latest….

Designing for admiration and to be validated by other people usually lands flat. I’ve designed some things that I thought we cool and hip and sure to garner some attention, but those efforts always fall flat.

The work I am most proud of is the work that positively inspires, helps or makes life better for other people. Once I realized that design was not about my preference or my taste, but about putting everyone before me who will use this thing I’m designing; whether it’s an app or a print design or whatever. Design is about everyone else.

I’ve developed this internal empathy over the years. When I’m designing something I think about how this mass conglomerate of people are going to react and use it in various settings. I don’t mull over the details of things that I want because of my personal taste (though my taste tends to find its way, naturally, into my work) But I realize that design is about giving up control. But not giving up control where you lose. Giving up control so that others may win. Once you change your perception as a designer that designing is not about you, but about everyone else – giving up control is easy. Because at this point, when you give up control of your perfection, your taste and your ability to spend hours tweaking the color blue on various screens; you start putting other people before yourself.

When I was younger, I wanted to design cool shit. I wanted to make things I could be proud of and that other people would say “Boy, that Jordan Lee sure has some talent”. But that kind of admiration only goes so far. Design is not art. Design is finding solutions in a world full of visual chaos. It’s about making sense of this whole thing we are are doing and somehow sifting through a lot of trial and error (mostly error) to find a path that others can easily visually follow.

Perception. A change in perception about design and being a designer is one of the most powerful things you can do. I’ve taken a step back from constantly trying to make new pieces, designing cool stuff and making an effort to understand other humans. I think it’s important. For me. I think that stepping away from creating things and really listening and learning to others and hearing their needs will make me (and hopefully you, if you’ve gotten this far) a better designer.

I’ve shifted my perception about design. We live in a world where our tools and ability to work anywhere on multiple devices is really convenient. But I think after a decade of honing the craft and visually pouring myself into pixels, I’ve realized that my greatest strength right now is to step away, look at the world around me, connect with humans, listen and understand them on a deeper level and pour that energy back into my work. Constantly channeling the energy of what others want is being empathetic to you design and becoming a better designer.

Now, some designers might completely disagree with me on this whole thing and argue “Man, when you sucumb to everyone else, you’re selling out, you’re designing by committee, you’re not putting yourself into your work.” I respect your right to an opinion, but I believe that life without putting others before ourselves is meaningless. If we’re designing to please ourselves then we are completely missing the point of our profession. Design is about everyone but you.

….Thanks for reading. It felt damn good to write this out. I think sometimes you have to grow as a designer when you’re not doing the actual designing.