Hey Laura! First, let’s talk about your journey. How did you get into design? When did you know you were meant to be a creative?
When I was small, all I cared about was drawing, reading and building. It was fun to make pretty things, but what I really enjoyed was creating something with a specific purpose. Honestly, I was too uptight to create and share self-expressive artwork. I drew accompanying illustrations for my history homework (total teacher’s pet), and used building blocks to create brick-eating robot toys for my younger siblings—the bricks came out the other end too… (I knew my audience.)
Until secondary school (high school), I had no idea there were classes or professions that aligned with the stuff I did for fun. Art was usually my favourite subject, but when I discovered Graphic Product Design—essentially pre-internet graphic design—it hooked me. Studying design gave me the chance to keep creating things with a purpose, and learning how many specialisms there could be under the broad bracket of design.
Design can be used to help educate and inform people, attract and entertain people, persuade and even manipulate people.
What is your favourite design discipline and why? How did you find out it was your favourite? How can young designers find out?
Ever since I discovered the web existed, I wanted to design for the web. I loved the idea of the web as something that was often inexpensive to use, and gave many people equal access to a massive range of information, services, and each other. Designing for rapidly evolving media was challenging and fun. None of my classes taught web design, but the beauty of the web is that I could learn web design and how to code from the web itself. This meant I learned some bad practices early on! It can be hard to know which sources are up-to-date and are offering good advice, but I found following individuals whose work I respected gave me a way to understand the web through their experiences.
Nowadays the web is resplendent with portfolio sites, case studies, blogs and magazines about design. If I were starting out today, I’d read and consume as much about design as I could. Find out what appeals to me, and the skills I’d like to develop, then practice those skills to see what sticks. That part is relatively simple, even though there’s so much inspiration to choose from.
The harder part is working out how you want to use your design skills. I believe the most important part of learning design is understanding how design is used as a tool. Design can be used to help educate and inform people, attract and entertain people, persuade and even manipulate people. This means design is a powerful tool, and so the client and the audience really matters. I wouldn’t want to use my design skills to create things that harm people, or that gives power and money to others who harm people. I feel as though I have a responsibility to try to do good work that benefits community and society. Even if my work is just a tiny speck compared to the rest of the work on this planet, I want it to be positive.
Do you think young designers should try to learn many disciplines or focus on mastering a single one?
As a designer who rotates through a lot of different related disciplines in my work, many of the skills are transferable. In one month, I might do web design, illustration, icon design, print design, photography, web development, and that’s just the design-related work! Skills like paying attention to detail, researching and studying to develop an understanding of the project, and being able to communicate your process and decisions to other people, are key to all of these disciplines.
There’s no rules saying you have to be loyal to one discipline, it’s actually really useful to be brave about stepping into another discipline and giving it a go. I wouldn’t call myself an illustrator, but I’ve done nearly all the illustrations in every project I’ve worked on. One of the things I’ve learned about dipping into an unfamiliar discipline is what I am, and am not, capable of doing. I know illustrative styles I can work with, and when I’d be better off asking for the help of someone with more range and experience. We don’t need to be constrained or defined by job titles or disciplines.
If we work by ourselves on an idea for too long, we can build up loyalty to the idea, even if it no longer fits the scope of the project.
What is your creative process? Do you think young designers should have a set of processes or go with the flow?
My creative process relies on a thorough understanding of why I am working on a project. Does it even need to exist? What are the benefits and potential pitfalls? Who is impacted by this work? I research to build up a knowledge of the area and any problems I’m trying to “solve,” and map out potential solutions. While there’s periods of “going with the flow” when sketching out ideas or mocking up designs, I try to get to a solid idea pretty quickly. With a basic solid idea, I can test to see if it has promise, or abandon it quickly if it’s not going to work. I try to get feedback from the people I’m working with, and the intended audience, as quickly as possible. Designers shouldn’t build up individualistic processes for themselves that makes it difficult to communicate decisions or collaborate with others. If we work by ourselves on an idea for too long, we can build up loyalty to the idea, even if it no longer fits the scope of the project. The lone brilliant creative may be a romantic vision, but it makes you a nightmare to work with, and can be very lonely too.
How do you get inspired?
I’m inspired by the idea of making something better… not that I’m always capable of making a thing better! It gets me fired up to think about how I can fix a site, an app, a layout on a piece of paper, to make it easier for a person to access, use, or understand. The more experience I’ve gained in design, the less confident I am in my ability to effect change. Many of the things we want to improve in the world require massive systemic change, not “pushing pixels.” But when I can see other people working hard to make a difference, and when I can see a place where my work can make a difference, that inspires me to do my best work.
Anything that offers insight into how you think and how you work is valuable.
Do you think having a portfolio is important for young designers? What would your dream young designer portfolio be?
A portfolio is useful for any designer trying to get work. Images and videos of work are good for getting an idea of a designer’s aesthetic style, but I think it’s secondary to case studies about the projects themselves. Tell people what you did and why you did it. Why did you take on this project in the first place? What was your role? It doesn’t matter if you only did a tiny part of the project, just talk about what you worked on, and how you collaborated with the others involved. It doesn’t matter if it’s just a hobby project you worked on for a friend, anything that offers insight into how you think and how you work is valuable.
What is the most important thing to know about design in your opinion?
As I mentioned earlier, design is powerful. Too many new designers today look straight to working with startups in Silicon Valley or other big brand corporations. People who work at those businesses are treated like idols. I think that’s an awful shame. We live in a world that with a climate emergency. Wealth inequality is widening. Marginalised and vulnerable people are facing prejudice, violence and worse. We shouldn’t be working for businesses that don’t respect human rights, work with fascist governments, don’t pay their workers fairly, don’t pay taxes, invade their users’ privacy and build intentionally addictive products. That doesn’t mean designers shouldn’t work on projects that make money, or are just for fun. But we must take responsibility for understanding the impact of our work, and not contribute to a product, organisation, or culture that causes harm.
A good designer uses whatever skills they have to make the best difference they can.
How can young designers get their first internship/job? Is it important to go to design school or not?
Maybe I’m not the best person for giving advice on getting a mainstream design industry job, as I’ve been self-employed since I left design school. But I can talk about getting clients. I freelanced for seven years before I started partnering on Ind.ie. Most of my clients came to me through word-of-mouth, and the rest through my portfolio website and social media. If somebody likes working with you enough to recommend you to someone else, it can make your freelance career. I tried to set realistic expectations, be reliable, and work hard. It meant I was lucky to form relationships with clients where they would keep coming back to me with more projects. Though I also steered clear of potential clients who I thought would be difficult to work with or wouldn’t pay on time. It’s not worth your time to be treated badly.
Design school is worthwhile if you can afford it and make the most of it. Though I really don’t think it’s required. I’ve still got a huge debt from university, and my education was inexpensive compared to today’s fees. For a long time after I graduated, I didn’t think the cost of university was worthwhile. I worked for myself, much of the curriculum didn’t fit with the disciplines I wanted to work in, and I never had a professional resumé where I could show off my degree. But over time I’ve realised I learned a lot from studying areas outside my comfort zone, collaborating with other students, and learning vital communication skills (like constructive criticism.) I also made the most of free time around classes and lectures to keep learning web development.
The thing is, I was privileged. I admire many brilliant designers who didn’t have formal design education, and I’ve been lucky to work with some of them. Paying lots of money, showing off big-name design schools or big-name clients is not what makes a good designer. A good designer uses whatever skills they have to make the best difference they can. They care about their work and its impact, they share knowledge and share credit, everyone feels better and smarter for working with them. You don’t need a design school education to be that designer.
Did you learn any tricks during your career? Do you have any tricks you would have loved your young-self to know?
Know your worth. Don’t work for free (that includes working for “exposure” or “portfolio pieces”!) If you work for free, clients won’t understand your value and will expect you to work for free forever. Even if you can afford to work for free, you will set the wrong expectations for your future self, and for other new designers who may not be able to afford to work for free. Expect to be treated with respect. You may be inexperienced, or have different skills than your coworkers, you still deserve to be treated as an equal. Don’t stick around and wait for people to start treating you better, if you can afford to leave a bad working situation, leave.
Also, share your work. Don’t be a show off, but share your learning process. Write blog posts or post to a a private community where you feel comfortable sharing. Share the tips and tricks you learned, even if you’re not 100% confident in them, or weren’t the first person to think of them. (Do give credit if you learned something from somebody else!) Sharing like this helps to build your communication skills, as well as building community. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about my career so far is getting to talk about design with smart people whose thoughts I really respect. I learned so much from the blogs of early web pioneers like Rachel Andrew and Molly Holzschlag.
Know your worth and don't work for free.
Do you have any favourite books/resources you would have loved to read when you were younger to help boost your creative career?
I wish the whole of the A Book Apart collection of books existed when I was starting out. They’re a great way to get solid introductions to web-related design skills, as well as dipping into related professions (information architecture! copy writing!) to broaden your skills and understanding of the industry as a whole. I’m completely biased because I wrote their book #24, Accessibility For Everyone, but knowing their publishing process, and the care and work that goes into each book, I really trust A Book Apart to give me valuable and worthwhile information in books that aren’t overly long. Another of my favourite books is "Technically Wrong" by Sara Wachter-Boettcher which gives a great critical introduction to the tech industry.
When I started out, A List Apart already existed, and it’s still going strong today. But there’s a whole load of resources out there that didn’t exist yet. Some of my more recent favourite sites for learning include:
- CSS Tricks
- A11y Project
I also enjoy subscribing to the blogs of people whose work I admire. I subscribe to their blog’s RSS feeds using Feedbin so I can get all the latest updates to my computer without having to check individual sites, or getting distracted on social media.
To wrap up, do you have a favourite quote? How is it relative to your creative career?
I’m not a big collector of quotes, but there’s one phrase that has been sticking in my head recently. “Intent does not erase impact.” Recently, Tatiana Mac has used it in her talks and her powerful article, ‘Canary in a Coal Mine: How Tech Provides Platforms for Hate’. Too many bad design decisions that have caused harm are excused away by apologists saying “we didn’t mean to cause harm,” hoping those responsible will be instantly forgiven and their transgressions forgotten. “Intent does not erase impact” puts the responsibility on us as designers to understand how our products might have a harmful impact, to do the work to prevent harm, and to push back against harmful systems.
Anything you want to promote or plug?
Most of our work at Ind.ie is funded by supporters who become patrons or donate to us. (We’re just a tiny two-person-and-one-husky not-for-profit.) We’re launching some exciting things in the coming months, and are working hard to create ethical alternatives to mainstream technology. You can find out why we do, and what we’re working on by watching a recent talk my partner, Aral, and I gave at Think About! conference in Cologne. We also make a privacy tool called Better Blocker for iOS and macOS which blocks trackers from following you while you’re browsing the web.