The hardest thing about design work ain’t the design. Sure, learning about typography and color theory and everything else in the beginning sure is overwhelming. There’s so many books to read! So many things to learn! All the tiny details in Figma or Illustrator! Or figuring out the weirdness of CSS! But it took me over a decade in this field to realize that all this stuff that I struggled to learn is really the easy part of design. The border radii and copywriting and UX work is monkey business compared to the hardest thing you’ll do as a product designer.
The hardest part is the work that doesn’t look like work at all: building consensus, getting folks to agree on something, pitching a vision for the future and then walking through the steps to get there. Then you have to ensure you’re doing all that with right person in the right room at the right time. It’s about clear communication across teams and about reaching out to folks to get stuff done.
That’s because design is—ugh—politics.
When I first got into design systems many years ago, I found that picking button sizes, building solid components, and refactoring things was kind of easy, but getting people to agree on all those things? Boy howdy! It’s impossible if you don’t present the work correctly because without selling your design, without good rhetorical skills of any kind, that beautiful work will never see the light of day. I can’t count the times where I’ve pitched something that I thought was punk rock, only to find that I’m blocked because I didn’t communicate my thoughts properly. The work then dies on the vine, never leaving that stuffy meeting room.
That’s not to say that I’m a misunderstood genius designer who is always right—I’m absolutely not. I make mistakes all the time and I constantly produce half-baked work, but those visual and UX failures of mine pail in comparison to the failures in this other part of the job. Because what’s true for design systems is true for product design: good work will only ship if you sell it.
When I first heard that you have to “sell” your designs many moons ago though I was horrified. Shouldn’t great design be obvious? Why do I have to sell it when the design work itself is hard enough? Shouldn’t beautiful work be celebrated and encouraged, not bartered and fought for? For years I would blame the person I was pitching my designs to for their lack of understanding, their lack of vision. How dare they not recognize my genius! The nerve!
Painfully though, after bashing my head into the same wall over and over again, I now see things differently. It’s not really about “selling” design as much as it is communicating it clearly. Some people hear things in different ways and you have to learn how to speak in their tongue. You have to learn what is effective, how to unblock a design conversation, how to point to problems without everyone in the room feeling bad. Once I started being more careful about this, I noticed that my work improved, too. The act of learning how to sell this stuff improved my interfaces, my copywriting, my work. Weird!
I am yelling at myself here, but: you need to campaign for great design! If not for the managers and higher-ups, then for yourself. You have to get on that podium and learn how to make people excited to fix all these problems you see.
Okay, okay. I’m saying all this as if I’m preaching and I have all the answers figured out but the thing is, after all these years, I’m still awful—colossally, unforgivably awful—at politics. Design-wise I think I have some typography skills, my color skills are sometimes okay, but my politics? My talking skills? My rhetoric? Awful! I get angry at myself in the moment when I struggle to explain why this design is a good step forward, why something ought to work a certain way, and then I lose focus, lose patience, and everything crumbles around me. I can feel myself losing people in a meeting, the crowd growing distant, and then eventually caring less and less for what I have to say.
But when I’ve pitched something successfully it’s because I was careful, patient, and disciplined. When my designs ship it’s because I slowly walked through the problem, showed my thinking clearly, and gave our team a couple of options to move forward with. That’s politics, baby!
So I’m making a reminder for myself here that great design only gets built when you care for the politics—but!—I’m not suggesting here that we go out and be manipulative in a Game of Thrones-esque way. Getting good at politics isn’t about trying to dominate or control people just to get what you want. Chaos might be a ladder, but design surely isn’t.
Let me frame it like this instead: great design only ships when you care for the people you’re pitching it to. That’s politics. And that’s something worth repeating until it sticks.