The unbearable lightness of designing

Most of the time, I love my job. I love being able to create something out of nothing. I love helping my clients figure out what it is they need, and how to give it to them. I love making things look beautiful. I love that I can listen to aggressive music and drink wine while I work. I love that I get to use both the left and the right sides of my brain in equal measures. I love making gorgeous things that people use and love, and I adore that feeling that I’m producing something tangible.

But sometimes, it’s so wildly frustrating that I want to throw my computer out the window.

When I was sixteen, I went through a phase of experimentation with religions, trying different ones on the way you’d try on a pair of shoes. Buddhism appealed to me quite a bit, and, while I ended up discarding it eventually, the concept of dukkha stuck with me. Put succinctly, dukkha is the idea that, once we achieve a goal, we are left unsatisfied—wanting more. In effect, this means that it’s impossible to be satisfied with an accomplishment, because each one leads to a redoubled yearning.

I don’t necessarily think this a bad thing. In fact, part of the issues I have with Eastern philosophies is that I feel they reject part of what it means to be human: that constant striving. Sure, it creates suffering and unhappiness, but I believe that’s an inherent part of being alive. We are constantly fighting: against entropy, against death, against our own limitations and restrictions, against ourselves and against others. It’s this striving that makes humanity learn new things and create great things. Enlightenment might be nice, but it’s analogous to death in my mind.

Even though I think it’s normal, positive, and healthy, I still struggle with dukkha on a regular basis. And being a designer—well, being a designer really brings that out in me. Every time I finish something I’m happy with, I get this brief, momentary feeling of elation. And then, almost as quickly as it appeared, it falls. I see something else that’s better. I realize it’s not quite perfect. And then that happy, satisfied feeling dissipates, and I’m left wishing I’d done better. Frustrated that I failed to achieve some impossible standard.

Sometimes, I think this is because I spend too much time poring over the details of a project. It’s very rare that I don’t hate a piece of work by the time it’s finished, simply because I’ve spent so much time staring at it and adjusting it, pixel by pixel. This problem is then compounded by those projects that drag on forever due to causes beyond my own control. I’ve been working on a fairly extensive and involved website design for the past year and a half: at this point, I’ve been staring at it for so long I just can’t tell if I like it anymore.

I think it’s very difficult to love something you worked on two years ago, simply because design tends to be a temporal thing, and often can become dated, especially when you’re working in web design. Some of the work I actually end up liking again (once I’ve ignored it for a while) is the work that’s timeless, but I’ll admit there is a great deal of it that doesn’t stand up to the passage of time. And when you’re a web designer, time is particularly important.

Wicker Emporium blog
This is part of the Wicker Emporium’s greater redesign, and the only part that’s live as of yet. The original CSS code was written a year ago. By the time we launch, I’ll have basically ripped the whole thing up and rewritten it, just to meet my own quality standards.

I’ve always said that a year in internet time is like ten years of normal time, and I still maintain that’s true. Thing is, web design changes so quickly. I was thinking the other day about the ageism in web design when I met an older fellow who I thought was—let’s be frank—just terrible. I finally realized it’s not that being older makes you a worse, or less relevant, designer—and in fact there are a great many fantastic designers who are over forty, and god knows I’m not getting any younger—but in order to stay relevant, you need to stay on top of the ever-changing trends and technologies of the web. Sometimes it feels almost as though, just to stay on top of everything, I need to spend half of my time reading and learning new things.

Admittedly, this is something I love about design anyway, but I do always feel as though I’m out of time. Just on the creative side of things, I’ve taught myself a great number of things—I’ve dabbled in letterpress and screenprinting, both of which I intended to get more involved with but ended up dropping for logistical reasons. I taught myself calligraphy and still have best intentions to get really deeply into lettering. I very nearly signed up for a typography workshop in Boston, then decided it was too extravagant an idea. And then there’s all the technical stuff you need to learn. Responsive design. Retina images. How to prevent my WordPress site from being hacked this week. The latest developments in bizarre CSS selectors and how they work across six different browsers. Best coding practises. Using a CDN to make sure that my site runs crazy-fast, even if it’s hosted on GoDaddy. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ll just never be good, smart, or fast enough. When do I have time for a life outside this?

The problem is that there will always be a million people who are better than me. I’m not so much an egoist to believe that this wouldn’t be the case regardless of which particular career path I’d chosen. But with design—and especially with web design—I can see everyone who’s better than me. If I were a doctor, at least I’d only be competing against the other fifty doctors in the hospital. But as a designer, I’m completing against an entire world full of designers, lots of whom are way, way better than I’ll ever be. And if I’m feeling frustrated and angry and like my work will never be good enough and I should just pack it all in and move to Costa Rica to become a banana farmer—a phenomenon that usually occurs about once a week—the only way to avoid seeing work that’s better than mine is to unplug my internet and hide in bed. That’s not really a sane option.

Book cover mockups
Book cover mockups I’ve been working on this week. I was really happy with them at some point in the process, but I can’t tell anymore if they’re any good.

Ultimately, I think that, in order to be a designer, you need to have this feeling of dukkha. Striving for more is what keeps us constantly learning, changing, and developing. To be a good designer, you need this bizarre mix of humility and self-confidence, just to keep from going completely insane. Most of us are strong enough to withstand the pressure of an art-school critique, something that’s hard enough on its own. But once you’re out in the real world, you need to be your own critic—pulling apart and attacking something you created, something you poured your heart into.

So maybe the trick to being a good designer is embracing the existentialist angst behind it all. Realizing that no matter what you do, you’ll always be frustrated. But that it’s that willingness to throw yourself to your own inner critic, to face your own demons, and to suffer through endless self-doubt—it’s all that that will make you a good designer.

And ultimately, maybe all that turmoil and suffering will make me a better person, as well.