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 the Italian and American designer David Boardman, Head of Design at Citi Ventures Studio. Before starting his journey at Citi Ventures Studio, he was Design Director at IDEO in New York, and prior to that, he worked at frog design in Milan and at the MIT Design Lab in Cambridge.
Guidione: How would you explain Design to your younger self with one year of work experience?
David: First, Design is a mindset. It’s about seeing all things as if it were the first time, to have a genuine curiosity about the world. So there is really no “on” time and “off” time for a designer: you are constantly thinking about design even when you are not actually designing. The second thing is that design is the craft of creating experiences, and no matter what type of designer you are, this requires you to become a master in your own field.
It also requires you to deeply care about the things you are making and to think in other people’s shoes in order to make things that resonate with them. Lastly, which is the trickiest, is that you should have a perspective on what design is and constantly revisit it. In fact, there is no right or wrong way of viewing it. With this in mind, you should always look around, borrow from others and evolve your craft, your process, methodology and tools.
Guidione: How would you explain your UX design process to your younger self?
David: To borrow from IDEO’s lifeline cards for design crits, to me the design process is about rigor (constraints are key), bravery (try something new and bold), heart (you need to deeply care about the problem you are trying to solve and the people you are designing for), and mastery (of craft). The end product, experience or service, instead, needs to reflect aspects of beauty, brains and magic.
Guidione: Which mistakes would you tell your younger self to make?
David: Make as many mistakes as you can early in your career to get the experience — make those big-ego design-purist mistakes early on. My philosophy is that you make mistakes because you haven’t built experience and that you build experience by making mistakes. So, making mistakes is totally ok and as a designer, you should seek out for workplaces or projects where the culture encourages experimentation and boldness and where you can ask for forgiveness, especially early in your career. At the same time mistakes need to come from a good intention, and, more importantly, you need to be receptive when feedback is given.
You should learn from it and act on it. Though, making mistakes is not a justification for being careless. It’s never ok to lack empathy for people and issues. A careless approach can cause critical issues to our society and ethics at scale, think to the “move fast and break things” motto.
Guidione: What would you recommend your younger self to focus on?
David: Four things: reflect on your identity, develop your craft, seek for constant inspiration, care for the problems and people you are designing for. Reflect on your identity: who you are, what are your roots, what drives your work, and what makes you passionate and unique. Develop your craft: and intentionally experiment with it at the intersection with other crafts, materials and media. Seek for constant inspiration: it’s your duty to be inspired and to inspire others. Go niche, go mainstream. You need to be a sponge for inspiration through your personal creative filter.
Care for the problems and people you are designing for: today we have a lot of tools that allow us to do things remotely. That’s great, but I also believe that we have to, whenever we have a chance, meet the people in their real places, where they live, where they work, and seek to truly understand their lives beyond the screen. We need to design for everyday lives, not just screen time.
Guidione: What do you advise your younger self to learn (to get extra skills)?
David: While I assume that every designer is proficient with specialized and technical skills, I believe successful designers are those that seek excellence at the overlap with unexpected fields and work their way through job titles that potentially are not existing yet. Still, there are a few mindsets that are fundamental to every designer: developing and practising critical thinking, being able to handle and drive healthy conflict in a team, being comfortable with complexity, being open to constant learning.
Guidione: Which books would you encourage your longer self to read?
David: Three books that were transformative. “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. It really had me thinking as a designer, before becoming a designer. The second book is “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, which is a book that I only read recently. I think it taught me that sometimes things are right in front of you, yet you need to be ready to see and receive them. The third book is “Snow Crash,” by Neal Stephenson. a sci-fi book.
It was completely mind-blowing when I read it. It helped me learn to speculate about the future, visualize it, and to imagine how we can shape things to impact life in the future.
Guidione: Which people would you advise your younger self to follow?
David: You should follow people that are emergent, no matter their field. The reason they are emerging very often is because they have a very different point of view, and they have the drive that comes from a place which is new and unexpected. I think designers should always try to find those people and really pay attention to them and where they come from. They don’t need to be designers, they can be anyone who is coming up to visibility, that has an aura.
Guidione: Which tools would you suggest to your younger self to learn (become an expert in)?
David: Any tool that can help you evolve your craft. Back in the days, when I started designing I didn’t know I was formally a designer. That realization came after. I started by doing and playing with Graphic Design stealing here and there. I was making posters, then I was making websites.
They looked horrible. At some point, I decided to try coding. It was really a steep learning curve to become proficient at it, but it added a lot to my craft. It helped me expressing in a richer way, in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, in a way that was interactive.
So the takeaway here is: learn any tool that evolves your way of expressing yourself. Be comfortable with the idea that tools will always be evolving, especially as a UX designer, there is so much happening out there. Be flexible and adaptable with the tools, but be rigorous and intentional with your vision and craft.
Guidione: What wouldn’t you tell your younger self?
David: That a design career is a long and unorthodox journey. That emotionally is kind of riding a roller-coaster. Sometimes you have these big “ups” moments of enthusiasm and joy, and then you find yourself battling with doubts and failures. And that you should make the most of both these moments, and always take care of yourself.
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?
David: I don’t believe in pure luck. I think luck is a matter of attitude. Luck is about being open to luck, it’s being able to see the opportunity coming and take it. Luck comes often by just showing up, and, even better, by showing up with your work. I hope you enjoyed the interview as much I did. See you around.
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