Why I ignore the design industry on purpose

I’ve been a designer for nearly twenty years now (😮), with the last seven years spent happily at Basecamp. I enjoy my work and I care about it a lot.

Since I’ve been doing this for a long time, occasionally people ask me to predict next year’s big trends, or reflect on some industry controversy that’s been brewing.

That’s when I have to sheepishly admit: I pay almost no attention to what’s going on in the design industry. I don’t hang out on Dribbble or Product Hunt. I don’t read Hacker News. I don’t go to design conferences or Creative Mornings. I don’t look at inspiration sites or read designer blogs or tweets. I’m also not out there networking, hustling to make connections, hard-selling my personal brand, or fighting to stay on top of the game.

…I guess I’m kind of a professional hermit?

Common wisdom says that this is an absolutely terrible approach. We’re supposed to stay connected and rub elbows, even if those gestures are somewhat shallow or self-serving. There’s a whole social network based on this idea!

And that must be the only way to get ahead, right? Winning friends and influencing people? Doing anything else sounds like career suicide.

A few years ago, I believed that to be true, so I was totally plugged in, obsessively keeping up with industry happenings. It was OK for a while, but I also felt a nagging, low-grade sort of panic about my work.

Eventually, I burned out completely and shut it all down. Here’s what I discovered.

Keeping up with what’s hot is an exhausting zero sum game.

I tried keeping up with the hot trends for a while, and it never worked out so well. I wasn’t very good at doing trendy design, because it was all about someone else’s style, not my own.

What’s worse, even if you are on trend, the best you can do is hang on for a fleeting moment until the trendsetters move on to the next thing. You’ll always be a couple steps behind, desperate to keep up—instead of forging your own path in whatever weird direction you want.

Seeing other people’s work negatively affects my own creativity.

The incredible range of design work on the Internet is awe-inspiring, but damn, it can be demoralizing too. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re faced with stunning examples from thousands of amazingly talented professionals, especially when you’re first starting out. It’s like gazing at a perfectly manicured Instagram feed. Cue the inferiority complex!

And when you’re in a moment of creative weakness, it can be tempting to co-opt someone else’s style or ideas outright, rather than doing the hard work to understand the problems you’re working on. Once you see something, you can’t unsee it, and that inevitably messes with your head. You’ll be more likely to copycat a solution or fall back on prior art.

I’ve gotten myself into this trap a few times, so now I avoid looking at “how other people did it” as much as possible, and focus entirely on “how we should do it.”

Going deep into my own work maxes out my capacity.

Working at Basecamp is wonderful and chill, but we’re also a small company with only a few designers. That means every one of us has to be quite productive. We’re almost always cranking our way through challenging projects.

I exhaust all of my brain energy on that and my side project, which leaves very little space for anything else.

I don’t miss much by tuning out the industry noise.

The most important information always bubbles up. Standards change, technology evolves, patterns emerge, new ideas gain traction, clients ask you for different sorts of projects. You can stay on top of it organically by continuing to push your work in new directions. If you need to know something, you’ll find out.

Being out of the loop might sound isolating, but it’s not really. Just be more selective and defensive about your time and attention, and spend it wisely. Here are some things to do instead.

Focus on your work and establish your own opinions.

Discover what you care about and pursue it with rigor!

Look for inspiration in other places.

Instead of obsessing over what’s hot, find stuff that’s not. I like looking at conceptual art and old graphic design (especially from the 1920s–60s), I listen to a ton of music, grow a garden, play a guitar terribly, and so on.

When you’re curious and observant in your day-to-day life, unexpected things always find their way back into your work. The more diversity, the better. I’ve found this to strengthen my creativity much more than wading through more galleries of the year’s hippest design or chasing after bleeding-edge tech.

Find people with outside perspectives, and help your local community.

You’ll have a big impact by meeting people who aren’t like you, and by doing real work on the ground. It’s the non-designers and non-technical people, far outside our industry circles, who really need our help. Find them and help them!

After walking in their shoes for a while, you’ll gain a more complete worldview, with an entirely different set of priorities. That makes the industry-biz bubble seem a lot less interesting.

Your creative focus is a precious resource worth protecting

Designers are supposed to bring an original point of view and create things that don’t currently exist in the world. This requires a vulnerable, thoughtful, childlike state of mind: keeping your eyes open, discovering new possibilities, and tackling strange twisty puzzles.

It’s tough to achieve that, even on a good day. It’s gotten exponentially harder in the last decade, with information overload, a relentless news cycle, and attention-sucking devices keeping us all more pseudo-busy and distracted than ever. The mental stillness, boredom, and free time you need is in extremely short order.

I find that keeping tabs on the design industry is yet another source of interruption, and for me it’s more destructive than constructive, so I intentionally tune it out. (I’m also fortunately able to tune it out, because I’m in a privileged, stable position and I’m not trying to get a new job or transition into something else.)

I’m definitely not suggesting that the industry isn’t full of brilliant people doing amazing work, or otherwise beneficial in countless ways. If you’re new to the scene, or part of the community and enjoying it, that’s great! Please ignore everything I just said.

But if you’re feeling burned out or frantic like I was, it’s OK to bow out. Shut it all down and unfollow everything. Take a break for a week, or a year, or five years. It will be fine. You can build a career, help people, and do things that matter by charting your own course.

17 thoughts on “Why I ignore the design industry on purpose

  1. Excellent post. And this is not just true for designers. This holds true for entrepreneurs. We spend too much time plugged into the industry and derail our own progress.

  2. Great article…both thoughtful and hitting the spot.
    Quite randomly, i took a road trip across Morocco for the whole of last month. The landscape, people and architecture gave me a lot more inspiration than all the creative websites out there, really broadened my outlook.

  3. Agreed. Good article and points. I checked out of that game several years ago. It can still be a bit challenging to stay inspired and motivated, after all, you are in some ways cutting yourself off and stepping into a vacuum. I often wonder as well if it has/will effect my ability to find/apply/contend for new/different jobs. Not having a LinkedIn profile these days is practically akin to apostasy. I live and work in a smaller town and if you’re not ‘in the loop’ in some way, people aren’t going to find you.

  4. Your post is uncannily appropiate if you substitute photography for design. My creative field is photography and to the annoyance of my artist colleagues I’ve come to the same conclusions. I have hopped off the “have you seen this” train and stopped looking at the out pour of creative photography work flooding the galleries, book stores, instagram, flickr, et.al. simply because it overwhelms me, in some way discourages me because there is so much work which is very good, and because it ruins my own creative focus and the fun of discovery of my own style. Thanks for elequently putting my own feelings into words.

  5. Excellent.
    I am 40 years in the business. When I search around and see all the wild crazy brilliant stuff designed today, I say, well thank God I will be retiring in 5 years. That stuff is really good. BUT I have had the pleasure of keeping a handful of valuable corporate clients completely content with their marketing needs ever since I want solo 25 years ago (ad agencies before that). No small feat. I am pretty proud of that. And my design work. Even if it doesn’t make the average joe gaga with glee. Still damn good.

  6. I believe there’s a big difference between ignoring the design industry and just not actively or obsessively participating in it. It sounds like you are actually more passively coexisting as well as allowing your definition of design and areas of inspiration to be more broad. So your choice of words in “ignoring” and “design industry” are perhaps a little narrow or misleading. That said – I agree that, as with just about everything, moderation is often the best approach… and variety perspectives is better than uniformity.

  7. I simply couldn’t agree more with this post and (possibly) sadly, I am exactly the same way. I am very much “passively coexisting” as @Chad Reid mentioned above (in comments).

  8. Excellent observation. Thank you for articulating something that I’ve leaned towards for some time. I’m not a designer- I find this true in the systems engineering disciplines of info tech as well. Just do good work and let it speak for itself. You can’t keep up with ‘everything’ anyway.

  9. This!

    Since quite a few months I’m only subscribed to one design-related newsletter, unfollowed all “superstars” in the design industry and just consume 2-3 good old RSS feeds and it drastically relieved a lot of stress and doubts.

  10. Why didn’t you ignore the trend with 500% font sizes?
    This whole page LOOKS RIDICULOUS.
    I’m not even going to bother zooming it down to a fraction to be able to read more than 3 lines of text on my 43″ UHD screen.

  11. Hi Jonas, great article. This year I also decided to focus less on whats Hot in the market and dedicate my time to hone my foundational basics. I am intrigued by Looking for inspiration in other places. Can you explain more how Music can inspire designers that craft digital products mainly interfaces.

    1. Hi Tridip! Although the material of music is certainly different than digital product work, as a creative and business process there’s quite a lot of overlap. (Writing, iteration, layering, mixing, marketing + sales, etc.) I’ve been inspired by how small independent bands connect with their audiences and get the word out in unique ways. And, of course, I find music inspiring on a personal and emotional level.

      The more you look at other creative fields, the more you’ll notice similarities, even when the output is completely different. I think you can be similarly inspired by processes and concepts in architecture, cooking, industrial design, or whatever else you’re into.

  12. I see your point. I’m officially a full-time designer now at my church. We’re growing fast and non-dominational. I’ve found myself going to other churches we admire that are doing similar things in other areas of the world. I’m copying to learn and figure out what to design next. I’m in a unique position where I’m the only designer. So I design social media posts, video slides, vinyl wall graphics, signs, handouts, and shirts all while doing leading production for our services. I feel I need to keep an eye on what’s happening because I’m so new to everything AND because following a trend and creating material around Jesus actually works. Any advice for me?

    1. Hi Derek, it sounds like you’re at a moment where you need to absorb and learn as much as you can. And that’s completely fine! There’s nothing wrong with learning from similar organizations and applying some of their tactics when they’re helpful.

      Sometimes you need to just do the same thing everyone’s doing, to reach a baseline level of competence. Once that’s done, you’ll have more confidence, and you’ll start seeing opportunities to do something different and stand out from the pack.

      Along the way, I would suggest continually focusing on what’s unique about your church in your local community, what your organization stands for, and what you believe your message should be. Then iterate on all of that a lot. You can take what you learned from others, plus your own ideas, and turn it all into a unique point of view.

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