January 13, 2021

Principles & Practice

We are all guided by principles. You can read the ones I have established to guide my business, and life, here.

Every person on this planet lives by a set of principles. Regardless of whether or not we are aware of them, we are all guided by a set of rules baked into our decision-making process.

Sometimes these principles are established for us, most often via religion and/or the culture we are raised in. These principles are sometimes referred to as morals, although they are not always based in moral-rightness. If we're lucky, at some point in our lives, we may begin to question these principles; where they come from, how dedicated we are to them, and whether or not, given the choice, we truly believe in them.

I am often grateful for literature. At a young age, it was the books I read that allowed me to begin to question the world. Reading is often cited as the thing that set certain minds free. For myself, books gave me the opportunity to live the lives of others and, by proxy, understand that the way of life that I was surrounded by was not the only one out there.

This revelation came at a time while I was growing up in an isolated community in Northern Arizona. I won't name the town here, but it wouldn't be hard to discover; it is one of the most remote towns in the continental United States.

I say town not because it had a village-esque atmosphere, but because you can't possible call a one-mile-by-one-mile grid of homes populated by only five thousand people a city. Add to this the fact that this town had not one or two churches for it's five thousand inhabitants, but more than thirty. One entire street was nothing but churches. It was referred to as church row. No one found this strange.

As expected, I was very much suffocated by these surroundings. I was fortunate enough to have a liberal, atheist father, whose ideals that sounded like truth to me were challenged by my classmates - I will never forget the day in Biology, when we were watching a film on evolution, and the boy next to me said allowed, "This is so stupid. God made me. I didn't come from a fucking monkey."

There is nothing wrong with this boy's belief system, nor the prevailing beliefs that were clearly on display in the majority of the town's people.* As a boy, I was merely surprised to see that so many people were so convinced that their own little bubble of reality that they had been raised in was the only one. I saw it not only in students, but in my teachers as well. Even if they knew others existed elsewhere, these others were always viewed as lesser.

*Although, and this must be said, the town was bordered by the largest Native American Reservation in the country and the majority of the students at my school were Navajo; the racism shown between the Navajo and Caucasian peoples was both brazen and casual in that it was an accepted part of life there. It was not until much later, when a friend from Montana visited and said, "This is the most racist place I've ever been," that I saw it myself. Obviously I don't support the beliefs that may have fueled this, although I doubt the churches had anything to do with it.

Books further solidified my understanding that our morals and principles were inventions of our immediate surroundings and nothing more. There was no higher power at play. There was no one eternal truth.

In other words, it was up to us to challenge and form our own.

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As a designer, I have had a non-traditional education, and to this day I am often plagued by thoughts of inferiority. These delusions are not always negative, in that they often lead me to constantly pursue the next skill, broadening my knowledge in areas where it otherwise may have fallen stagnant. My partner often jokes that I learn more about design in a year than she did in all of school. I am forever curious.

Noticing some of the trends of UX, especially in students coming out of bootcamps where practical design skills are often neglected in favor of pure research, was a similar feeling to the one I had in science class that day - so many of the designers that I worked with were ignorant of other ways of doing things, to the point that their work, and their client's, suffered.

Maybe it is due to my non-formal education, or skating, or zen practice, or just having a different kind of life, but I always do my best to approach things from the mind of an absolute beginner, no matter how often I have done the activity. Design is like this; every project is a new entity, and while I may be able to use my practice to help get me started, what eventually is created will always be different from my other work. It will, hopefully, be better than what I have created in the past. How can I be ignorant and overly confident in the face of creating something new? It would be foolish.

And yet, many designers do this. We are taught to have a process, to pursue every project in the same way, as if they are all under the same umbrella. You often see this in RFP's, where designers are expected to create example work for clients, without any research; to shoot senselessly in the dark and prove our willingness to work in a way that is detrimental to all involved.

Seeing this lack of humility in designers, as well as a few other traits that I found disagreeable, I decided to come up with a list of principles to guide both my practice and client relations. Much like Ray Dalio, I believe these principles are responsible for my happiness and success as both a small business owner and a human. In that sense, they are not specifically for work or life; the two are inseparable.

Without further background, here are the principles that I currently live by.

PRINCIPLES

Clients. Curated.

In the past, I took on as many clients as I could get. I would be designing an ecommerce store for one, building a Wordpress site for another, and doing maintenance on an existing site for a third. The work suffered, I suffered, and my clients suffered.

I worked in this way because we are told, especially in the US, that one has to work as hard as they can for as long as they can, otherwise you're probably worthless.

I had never imagined being able to work for myself. It was always a dream, but something that I never thought would be for me, as I could not afford school. This was another baked in belief (follow the natural path or fail) but we'll discuss that another time.

When I finally learned design my own way and struck out as a freelancer, I harbored the belief that this blessing had to be paid for with sweat. Therefore, if I wasn't taking on as much work as I could, my business would not only fail, but it would deserve to.

Thankfully, I woke up to how sick this belief was. It only takes a few months of overworking before burnout arrives and you begin to miss working in a kitchen for minimum wage, because that life seems stress-free compared to what you have created for yourself.

Today, I only take on a limited number of clients. I typically work on one project at a time. Because of this restriction, I am able to choose projects that I am passionate about working on, for organizations that I know are a good fit for my services. Each client means more to me thanks to this.

This quality control means I can give each project exactly what it needs - focus, time, and heartfelt dedication.

Meta-Collaboration

While I am not a fool when it comes to managing the finances of my business, I am also not motivated by money. I want to meet good people, create websites that last, and help organizations bring about social change. These are my deeper motivations.

When it comes to collaboration, I don't believe one size fits all. Every project, and every company, is different. Working with others, my focus is always to remove my emotions and do my very best to connect on a deep level with every person that I work with. Sometimes this means stepping out of familiar territory, or taking on roles that are uncomfortable for me. But I remain flexible to what is right for the job and the people working on it.

Sticking to this principle in everything I do has led me to not only be more efficient, but to build real lasting relationships with the people I work with, and the people I meet. Getting past the preconceptions and roles and down to a place where we can talk like people is important to me.

It has proven important to my clients as well.

Do The Right Thing

This one is tricky, especially in design. The nature of our business is to do what is best for our clients, even when that means challenging and contradicting them. This is very difficult for me to do; I am non-confrontational by nature.

However, I have seen the effect of what happens when a designer allows their client's emotions into the mix, beyond when appropriate. Projects stop being productive, client relationships turn hostile, and the final work ends up leaving no one satisfied, least of all the customer.

A big part of my onboarding is now qualifying clients for their ability to accept my work. Much like I don't know how to run their business, they probably don't know how to properly critique work - this is why we hire others, to do the jobs that we don't know how to do. Often, clients who give poor feedback, or push the scope, don't know that they are doing wrong. They don't understand how my industry works.

For me, this principal is less about doing the morally correct thing, and all about reminding myself that it is okay to say No. If your request for a design change is going to be detrimental to your business, it is my responsibility to do the right thing and tell you, even if that means hurting your feelings or challenging your place as the owner of your organization. Sometimes the hard discussion is the one that we most need to have.

This is what good consultants do. I would never hire a plumber who bowed to my demand to fix my faucet for half-price using duct tape; I would expect him to sit me down and tell me why that was a foolish idea, using his expertise to show me the best way to achieve my goal. I would welcome this, because I choose to trust the people I hire.

I expect the same of my clients.

Work From Emptiness

I am a practicing student of Soto Zen Buddhism. This means that I follow a series of esoteric rituals that are of little interest to a design blog. However, one element of my Zen practice is also a major influence on my principles, and therefor worth discussion here.

When you develop a strong meditation practice, you begin to see that beneath the mess of our thoughts and desires lies a deep place of reflection. In many Buddhist texts, the human soul is referred to as a sort of mirror, with our thoughts and insecurities and emotions actings as metaphorical-dust on the allegorical-glass.

This glass sees things as they are. When a partner upsets us, or does something that causes us to feel anger, that is dust blocking this clear perception of where they are coming from. Without going to0 far into the complex details of this, the meaning is that when we are in this deeper place, we are not blinded by emotion or desire* and are able to act according to logic and a sort of pure intuition.

*This being said, emotions and desires are not viewed as negative forces, nor are they repressed. They just exist. The key is in finding this place where they are not driving our decision making process. This is an extreme simplification.

When I began to sit meditation before work meetings, nights out with friends, and even romantic dates, I found that my conversations and actions were not only deeper and more enjoyable, the decisions that I made were more intelligent and less encumbered. I felt that I was out in the world more, that I had taken a step beyond my own blinding needs, and that I was able to listen and help others from a much more efficient place.

This clear mirror is also referred to as emptiness, as it is inherently empty of delusion. This is also an almost blasphemous simplification. If you're a Buddhist, I apologize. I promise to do some extra prostrations.

To me, working from emptiness means dealing with every aspect of my business - the act of design itself, meetings, emails, client relationships - from a place free of my personal emotional influence. It means acting with logic first. If I had to choose only one principle to hand to others, it would be this one, for it has had the biggest impact on my own work and life.

Working from emptiness allows me to do the best work I can and have the deepest experiences and relationships possible. It allows me to effectively diagnose and solve problems. It feels like a superpower, because it sort of is, and when you practice it, it will startle you to discover how much decision making comes from a place of emotion in the face of logic.

You don't have to be a Buddhist to practice this. Just let go of your emotions and look deeply into each choice you make.

Curiosity Is King

As I touched on earlier, I believe that the strongest skill for a designer to foster is her sense of curiosity. Not just in the area of design, but in all things, as all things can present themselves as inspiration for the right project.

Curiosity is lacking today. Our schools do not promote it and the current career environment is more interested in pieces of paper than in the people they hire. While a handful of companies are changing this (thank you Rework) the norm is still to look for people who followed the proper path.

This proper path is a path to nowhere. The problem at the core of our educational process is that it is always a means to an end. You go to college to acquire a piece of paper that says that you have the skills needed to get a job doing whatever you chose, and then you're done.

This was true in the past, but it is time we let go of this misconception. There is no end to learning new skills, especially when it comes to a field that changes as swiftly as design. Do you really believe those layout skills students learned for building websites in 1998 are still valuable now? Well, you'd actually be somewhat right if you learned Resilient Web Design, but god forbid we ever return to the aesthetics of the pre-responsive times.

And yet, that is what the traditional path tells us; learn this and you'll be set forever.

I have always been curious, although for a long time I numbed this desire with drugs and alcohol, as is unfortunately the accepted path for many in our current culture who can't afford higher education or are afraid to pursue it because of stigmas. Intelligence and curiosity are not respected nor encouraged, especially outside of the classroom. As has been the case for the past century, take a look at the people we worship and you won't exactly find librarians and scientists.

Today, as a sober adult who is not afraid of labels, I love to learn. I am almost obsessed with developing new skills, with learning all I can about the places I go, the people I meet, the projects I work on. When I partner with a company, I want to understand every element of their business, to best help them. Nothing fulfills me more than to spend a day learning something new, no matter how obscure or seemingly useless the knowledge. (It rarely is.)

This is a trait that I foster in myself and encourage in others. Learn the skills of an autodidact and you can do absolutely anything in this world.

You Actually Know Nothing

One of the unforeseen traits of combining a curious mind with Zen practice is that I have come to understand that I know absolutely nothing. There will always be designers, writers, and corner fruit-sellers who know more than I do. Everyone is an expert of something.

This principle goes against do the right thing, in that this is the other side of the coin; when someone knows more than me, it is important for me to acknowledge this fact by shutting up and listening as intently as I can.

This is hard to do. None of us wants to admit that we are in the place of the student. It is a place looked down upon by our society. We are all supposed to have seen the new movie, read the new book, and know how to write code in the new language. Much like admitting one's mistakes without being self-conscious about them, this is a skill that has to be practiced.

But the rewards are numerous. I strongly believe that the mind is pliable, and allowing ourselves to let go of our attachment to the idea that our worth is based on our emotional state and skill level allows us to open our minds up and soften them to new knowledge, be it learning how to design something from an expert, or how to properly sharpen a knife from a man in a Moroccan kitchen.

The key to learning is admitting that you have room to learn in the first place.

Flexibility / Impermanence

If you know anything about Buddhism, then you probably assumed this one was coming. If not, then all you need to know for this metaphor to work is that a big aspect of Buddhism is our belief that nothing is permanent. Absolutely nothing. This is where the beauty in life is to be found - if things were eternal, there would be no reason to appreciate them.

This principal has little to do with my Zen practice, and in a more meta-nature, has to do with the principles themselves.

All things change and evolve, including my business. I hope that a few years from now, I will still be helping people use their websites to grow themselves and their businesses in ways that benefit their users. However, the way that looks will probably be totally different, especially in post-COVID times.

What this means is that I must never stick to one belief system. Much of Zen derides even labeling it Zen; even then, by that act labeling, we are missing the point. These principles are the same*; they are guides, not rules written on a stone tablet.

*I will be updating this page as they change and evolve.

In business, we have to be flexible and ready for change. We need to know when it's time to let go of something just as much as when it's time to put up a fight and hold on. The important part is not only being open to this change, but welcoming and accepting it. This is how the world works, this is how business works, and this is how our lives work.

Be comfortable with change and flexible with your ideas, come from a place of emptiness (wink,wink) and trust, and you will find that your principles will guide you through whatever hardship you encounter.

Thank you for reading.