Why I ignore the design industry on purpose

By Jonas Downey

I’ve been a designer for nearly twenty years now (😮), with the last seven years spent happily at Basecamp. I enjoy my work and I care about it a lot.

Since I’ve been doing this for a long time, occasionally people ask me to predict next year’s big trends, or reflect on some industry controversy that’s been brewing.

That’s when I have to sheepishly admit: I pay almost no attention to what’s going on in the design industry. I don’t hang out on Dribbble or Product Hunt. I don’t read Hacker News. I don’t go to design conferences or Creative Mornings. I don’t look at inspiration sites or read designer blogs or tweets. I’m also not out there networking, hustling to make connections, hard-selling my personal brand, or fighting to stay on top of the game.

…I guess I’m kind of a professional hermit?

Common wisdom says that this is an absolutely terrible approach. We’re supposed to stay connected and rub elbows, even if those gestures are somewhat shallow or self-serving. There’s a whole social network based on this idea!

And that must be the only way to get ahead, right? Winning friends and influencing people? Doing anything else sounds like career suicide.

A few years ago, I believed that to be true, so I was totally plugged in, obsessively keeping up with industry happenings. It was OK for a while, but I also felt a nagging, low-grade sort of panic about my work.

Eventually, I burned out completely and shut it all down. Here’s what I discovered.

Keeping up with what’s hot is an exhausting zero sum game.

I tried keeping up with the hot trends for a while, and it never worked out so well. I wasn’t very good at doing trendy design, because it was all about someone else’s style, not my own.

What’s worse, even if you are on trend, the best you can do is hang on for a fleeting moment until the trendsetters move on to the next thing. You’ll always be a couple steps behind, desperate to keep up—instead of forging your own path in whatever weird direction you want.

Seeing other people’s work negatively affects my own creativity.

The incredible range of design work on the Internet is awe-inspiring, but damn, it can be demoralizing too. It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re faced with stunning examples from thousands of amazingly talented professionals, especially when you’re first starting out. It’s like gazing at a perfectly manicured Instagram feed. Cue the inferiority complex!

And when you’re in a moment of creative weakness, it can be tempting to co-opt someone else’s style or ideas outright, rather than doing the hard work to understand the problems you’re working on. Once you see something, you can’t unsee it, and that inevitably messes with your head. You’ll be more likely to copycat a solution or fall back on prior art.

I’ve gotten myself into this trap a few times, so now I avoid looking at “how other people did it” as much as possible, and focus entirely on “how we should do it.”

Going deep into my own work maxes out my capacity.

Working at Basecamp is wonderful and chill, but we’re also a small company with only a few designers. That means every one of us has to be quite productive. We’re almost always cranking our way through challenging projects.

I exhaust all of my brain energy on that and my side project, which leaves very little space for anything else.

I don’t miss much by tuning out the industry noise.

The most important information always bubbles up. Standards change, technology evolves, patterns emerge, new ideas gain traction, clients ask you for different sorts of projects. You can stay on top of it organically by continuing to push your work in new directions. If you need to know something, you’ll find out.

Being out of the loop might sound isolating, but it’s not really. Just be more selective and defensive about your time and attention, and spend it wisely. Here are some things to do instead.

Focus on your work and establish your own opinions.

Discover what you care about and pursue it with rigor!

Look for inspiration in other places.

Instead of obsessing over what’s hot, find stuff that’s not. I like looking at conceptual art and old graphic design (especially from the 1920s–60s), I listen to a ton of music, grow a garden, play a guitar terribly, and so on.

When you’re curious and observant in your day-to-day life, unexpected things always find their way back into your work. The more diversity, the better. I’ve found this to strengthen my creativity much more than wading through more galleries of the year’s hippest design or chasing after bleeding-edge tech.

Find people with outside perspectives, and help your local community.

You’ll have a big impact by meeting people who aren’t like you, and by doing real work on the ground. It’s the non-designers and non-technical people, far outside our industry circles, who really need our help. Find them and help them!

After walking in their shoes for a while, you’ll gain a more complete worldview, with an entirely different set of priorities. That makes the industry-biz bubble seem a lot less interesting.

Your creative focus is a precious resource worth protecting

Designers are supposed to bring an original point of view and create things that don’t currently exist in the world. This requires a vulnerable, thoughtful, childlike state of mind: keeping your eyes open, discovering new possibilities, and tackling strange twisty puzzles.

It’s tough to achieve that, even on a good day. It’s gotten exponentially harder in the last decade, with information overload, a relentless news cycle, and attention-sucking devices keeping us all more pseudo-busy and distracted than ever. The mental stillness, boredom, and free time you need is in extremely short order.

I find that keeping tabs on the design industry is yet another source of interruption, and for me it’s more destructive than constructive, so I intentionally tune it out. (I’m also fortunately able to tune it out, because I’m in a privileged, stable position and I’m not trying to get a new job or transition into something else.)

I’m definitely not suggesting that the industry isn’t full of brilliant people doing amazing work, or otherwise beneficial in countless ways. If you’re new to the scene, or part of the community and enjoying it, that’s great! Please ignore everything I just said.

But if you’re feeling burned out or frantic like I was, it’s OK to bow out. Shut it all down and unfollow everything. Take a break for a week, or a year, or five years. It will be fine. You can build a career, help people, and do things that matter by charting your own course.