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Paying Your Dues

Getting paid poorly to work extreme hours on projects you don’t believe in only earns you experience in being exploited. And who wants to make a living doing that?

So before you pick up the oars again, let’s examine different types of dues you might be expected to pay, and what you can expect to get from paying them.

“You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”

★ Merle Travis, Sixteen Tons

Working Overtime. All the time.

If you work in a deadline-oriented industry you’re going to have to put in some late nights and overtime, so get used to it. It shouldn’t be the norm, though. In some companies, paying your dues means frequent all-nighters and continual 80 hour weeks. I question who benefits from this type of culture. Certainly not the producers of the work, who are sleep deprived and sacrificing time with friends, family and the outside world. And probably not the project itself–unless you believe the best work is performed by perpetually exhausted employees. Yet, for how many of us does this amount of work just seem to be expected…or even glamorized?

A culture like this doesn’t teach you to work better, faster or smarter. It burns you out2 and reinforces bad behaviors. One firm I know has had celebrations, rewarding individuals for for putting in an insane number of consecutive hours to meet a deadline. Everyone claps and pitches high fives. Back-patting ensues. A manager delivers an inspirational speech about teamwork, as tokens of appreciation are bestowed upon the bewildered production team–a team too fatigued to see the irony in the charade: that it’s a celebration of poor project planning. Who’s to say poor scheduling was actually to blame though? It could just be that someone was too eager to tell the client what they wanted to hear, fully aware that the personal time of production staff would be at their disposal. Not to be a party pooper, but neither case sounds like much cause for celebration to me.

Getting Promoted Out of Your Position

If you exist in a work culture where insane hours are the norm, you know that it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. As long as projects with impossible deadlines are delivered on time, the crazy hours won’t go away. You begin to feel like a grunt. So what happens next? You stop wanting to be the person doing the actual work. You pay your dues, collecting carrots as you wait for a promotion. Let some other sucker take their turn putting in late nights. Maybe you can become a manager. Models like this echo the factory age, imposing a separation between the thinkers and the doers. It all but ensures that only the most junior or masochistic designers will end up actually producing work.

This is a reason why there are so few masters in web design: people are constantly encouraged out of the profession. Your reward for doing a good job is to be promoted out of it.3 If you want to do really interesting work you need dig down deep below the surface. You have to spend time getting your hands dirty. Experiment. Mess some stuff up. There’s a lifetime worth of material and inspiration to explore.

For some of you though, management might be a very natural progression. If so, that’s great. We need more brilliant, creative minds in management roles, especially those who understand the design process. Just don’t go into it for the wrong reasons: because your company’s org chart says it’s the next rung up or because you’re bonering for authority. Design your own career path, and don’t let anyone, least of all an unhealthy corporate culture, drive you away from whatever field you love.

Doing as Your Told

It’s a bit unrealistic to assume you’ll ever get hired to do whatever you want, no questions asked. Paying your dues will likely mean taking a lot of direction and working under others. This is fair and to be expected. But what if you’re told to do something you don’t agree with? It could be something small: would you deliver a site that you know has accessibility problems? Or maybe you’re just asked to create something that offends your taste and judgement, like using blinking text. Where do you draw the line? Perhaps you’re told to do something that you find morally objectionable: like building a website for a company that uses child labor or that’s notorious for discriminating against women. What if you were asked to plagiarize another designers work, or to use deceptive design techniques to drive website conversions?

Doing work that you’re ashamed of or that conflicts with your principles won’t advance your career, it will only make you feel horrible. It may even come back to haunt you.

Mustering the courage to refuse to do work on principle can be daunting, especially when you’re just entering the profession. But when all is said and done, you are responsible for the things you create. It’s your hands that type the code, push the pixels, or sketch the interactions. There are a million and one bad ideas out there, but they don’t become real until someone like you brings them to life. What will you create? Summon your confidence and remember that you’re hired for your mind as well as your technique. If all that’s expected from you is to produce work it might as well be outsourced. Demonstrate your value by introducing your own thoughts and ideas to each project you work on.

If right now you’re thinking, “must be nice”, that’s fine–it’s your prerogative. Personally, I’m a firm believer that taking ownership of what you create is not a luxury, its your responsibility. But if you’re still worried that sticking by your principles might hurt your career, imagine the type of excuses you’ll need to make for your portfolio:

  • “Here’s a site I worked on for NAMBLA. I don’t agree with the content, but I did use media queries–you’ll see that the pages are entirely responsive….” 
  • “This next example could have been really great. You’ll need to use your imagination as I describe what I would have liked to have done…”
  • “The IA is a mess and the site doesn’t work in all browsers, but it wasn’t in scope and I got kids to feed…”

The sooner you make the distinction between whether you’re going to be the tool or the hands holding the tools, the better off you’ll be.

Don’t Be Someone Else’s Tool

It’s a lot easier to buy tools than it is to hire talent. Tools don’t ask questions. You use them until they wear out or break and then you get new ones. If you’re treated like tool, you’ve got two big problems. First off, you’re expendable4. Second, you probably aren’t getting a lot of respect. Just because you’re on the lower rungs of the ladder, it doesn’t give the people above you have the authority to insult or degrade you. If the people around you make you feel bad about yourself, leave. We can’t control all of the variables in our lives or the circumstances we find ourselves in. The economy can make finding a new job scary. But if you are miserable at work day in and day out, it will seep into your personal life. I hate hearing stories from friends who feel trapped at jobs that are borderline abusive. Hopefully this isn’t a situation you are in, but if it is, get out and don’t look back. You are entitled to demand respect.

Paying Your Dues Can Take You Really Far

None of us are entitled to good jobs, great clients or interesting projects. These are all things we have to proactively seek out and they take effort to earn. You need to practice your craft and sharpen your skills.

Focus on the fundamentals: learn to sketch, learn to code, and learn to write. These should become your vocabulary for expression.

You need to build confidence and a strong body of work, and along the way, you will need to pay some dues. Here are the kind of dues you should expect to pay.

Sleepless nights–on your terms
Devote the time to mastering your craft. It might be writing, trying to get some code you wrote to work right, or working on a pet project. If you are consistently putting in overtime at your job, maybe that’s okay: Does it match what you were told to expect when you were hired? Is it voluntary or mandatory? If you are passionate about your job, and compensated for your time, it might be worth it.
Learning–on your own time and dime if necessary
You might be lucky enough to have an employer who will to send you to conferences or reimburse you for educational expenses. If not, you need to be willing to devote your own time to study. You can attend conferences, or scour the web for demos, tutorials and presentations. Depending on where you live, you might be able to find local groups who host meet-ups or bar camps. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what you need learn, let your curiosity guide you.
Working on pet projects and collaborating with others
If you are waiting for a client to approach you with that dream project, it might be a while. If there’s something you want to do, pull together some people and just make it happen. Pet projects5 also provide a good way to experiment and learn new techniques.
Screwing up and dealing with it
Part of paying your dues is learning things the hard way. Make your mistakes and learn from them. Admit when you’ve screwed something up.
Realizing it’s likely you, not your work, which is boring
Some work is tedious and time consuming. Some work is hard. You may feel like aren’t getting the fun projects, but it’s all about what you put into it. Exciting work is just as likely to come from dull-sounding projects as fun ones. The best design is often unexpected: the transformation of something seemingly mundane into something delightful.
Learning to put up with other peoples’ personalities
Clients have them, bosses have them, coworkers have them and you do too. It might not come easy or natural, but you gotta learn to deal with them.
Taking on things that nobody told you to take on
Take the initiative to introduce new ideas, and fill any gaps you see. It might mean more work, or stepping outside the role you were hired for, but ultimately its the path to becoming indispensable6. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to work on something new.

Be the one to set the expectations

Designers are trained not to miss deadlines, which is a good thing. But over time that determination to get things done at any cost has made us vulnerable to exploitation. People have been primed to think of art and design simply as craft and trade, and forget that production is just a small part of what we do. Along with craftsmanship we’re trained in things like lateral thinking, visual communication, empathy, and storytelling. We also possess an inherent understanding of technology and interaction. Our skills can be put to any number of uses: we can contribute solutions to global problems, we can help connect businesses with their audiences, and we can find new ways for people to communicate with each other through technology. So what’s stopping us?

What seems to hold us back most isn’t our bosses or clients, but ourselves. It’s up to us to determine how our skills can and should be used. We must be the ones to set the expectation for what we can accomplish.

What do you think? What dues should we be expected to pay or not pay?

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