This article is part of a series of 10 interviews with world-class designers. I’ve interviewed Junior to Senior designers from companies such as IDEO, Dropbox, Visa, Airbnb, Toptal, Shopify and others.
“Questions to your younger self” was the format I used because I believe that it’s easier to give advice to my younger self than to someone else. So, in order to make the life of my interviewees easy, they would just have to give recommendations and advice to their younger selves on what it takes to become a world-class designer and what they should avoid to speed up the process.
Without further ado, meet Farai Madzima, a Zimbabwean UX designer, conference organizer, and speaker living in Canada. Currently, he’s a UX Lead at Shopify in Ottawa. Previously, Farai led Standard Bank South Africa’s team of designers and researchers in Johannesburg.
Farai organizes Pixel Up! conferences and meetups in South Africa to connect African designers and developers with their peers in the rest of the world.
Guidione: How would you explain Design to your younger self with one year of work experience?
Farai: I would say that it’s an opportunity to understand how the product around us can improve the life of ordinary people by using not just the aesthetic side of the design — look and feel — but by using problem understanding, problem exploration, problem-solving tools that design allow us to have. Design is not about look and feel, design is about understanding a problem and come out with a solution and validate that solution.
Guidione: How would you explain your UX design process to your younger self?
Farai: The best place to start is with a lot of details about the problem, a lot of clarity about the problem. This skillset is super valuable. I will usually get a project brief but you have to interrogate what the stakeholders understood about what the problem is, what the team you work with understand what the problem is. This is one of the most critical things to understand. The work of ultimately putting together a wireframe which makes the team excited right now is much less important to spend time on. Fall in love with the problem. Understand the dimensions before getting to the space and trying to solve it.
Guidione: Which mistakes would you tell your younger self to make?
Farai: Do more independent work and ship it. Do not just have ideas that only work in your mind. Theoretically, an opportunity to make a mistake may be indirectly. One of the things that actually happened to me is that I got fired. So get fired! I guess that’s a mistake to make. Get fired and quit your job and try to go out and figure out things by yourself. Depending on perspective, that can be a mistake.
Guidione: What would you recommend your younger self to focus on?
Farai: Focus on the skill of focusing. It’s very easy at a young age to have lots of ideas and lots of things that you want to get involved with. But the skills to be able actually to do less and spend much time on that “less” and do that “less” better is much more important.
Guidione: What do you advise your younger self to learn (to get extra skills)?
Farai: Learn about building and maintaining relationships within the industry and the people you would like to work with. Learn to reach out to people and learn when it makes sense and maintains relationships with those people. I think that that can be more important than the craft. You know, you can read tutorials online and learn how to use sketch but great design work, great design opportunities come from the relationships that you build around you.
Guidione: Which books would you encourage your younger self to read?
Farai: I would encourage my younger self to read “Pricing Design” by Dan Mall. This book helps exactly with the work of trying to understand your value in the market and being able to understand the mindset that you need to be able to value yourself in the market so you do not undervalue yourself or overprice yourself, so you do not get caught in the game of trying to sell hours but start to understand the game of selling value.
I think that would be a thing for young designers to get their head around and understand. There is a book which came out recently, it’s called “Liminal Thinking” that would not be available at that time but I would still recommend it if I was 21 now. Liminal Thinking is about questioning and understanding what you believe and why you believe and know that you can change those things, knowing the limitation of those beliefs. This is an important thing.
At that time, I was forming my own ideas about what was happening in the world, how the world works, how come it works, what you are capable of and more. Your understanding of these ideas when you are 21 should always be open to change and all these things I think are useful.
Guidione: Which people would you advise your younger self to follow?
Farai: I would say maybe less following on social media and building relationship with people you would like to work with, people whose work inspires you, maybe people who’re work inspire your mentors. At a young age, I didn’t know much about the design industry because I didn’t formally study design. I didn’t know who the biggest designers were, I didn’t know who Dieter Rams were.
If I had to mentor someone on design I would guide him to meet those people and try to build some kind of relationship with those people and try to maintain that in the real world, if possible. If social media is the only place you can do that, that’s fine. But I would say that the real world is better.
Guidione: Which tools would you suggest to your younger self to learn (become an expert in)?
Farai: Good and clear writing skill is the is the base of all good design. If you are able to articulate what a product should do then you will be able to chat clearly to your team. If you can put together a pitch, the way you communicate it will be better because, ultimately, software is a conversation between a human and a system and you have to be able to write that conversation well.
Writing is one of the most important skills. Do not stop doing it. Writing blogs, writing books, writing articles, writing briefs, writing down ideas. I think that is a critical skill which was undervalued when I was learning about design.
Guidione: What wouldn’t you tell your younger self?
Farai: I would hide the possibility of failure from myself. Do not be too conscious. When you are conscious you can be too risk-averse and not try nothing new.
Guidione: In talking to your younger self, how much of your current success would you attribute to hard work and how much would you attribute to luck?
Farai: I would like to say 50–50 but that is not accurate. But the harder you work, the luckier you get. That’s what I think. I found out that when I have been busy I have created something, shipping that thing out and the world I created some luck for me. A good example is Pixel Up!, you know. We worked hard to create that thing but by putting it out there, new opportunities came as soon we announced it.
People just came and said “I can do this”, “I can do that”, we did not even know that was that thing. Luck is not be underestimated but I think luck in my world does not exist without hard work.
I hope you enjoyed the interview as much I did. See you around.
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