Thoughts on 'The New Normal'

by Greg Bolton, Jam3

A few months back, over a few beers, I had a conversation with a product designer friend. He threw out an interesting question: why is it that people in the digital design and development industry seem — overall — happier with their jobs and more fulfilled than people in most other industries?

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I mean sure, we’ve all had days where a piece of code breaks (seemingly for no reason), or a piece of feedback makes us want to break things (for oh-so-many reasons).

For the most part, though, people in our industry seem to really dig what they do. Why? My friend and I hit on a couple of things: our industry lets us do interesting, innovative work in close collaboration with a wide variety of cool people. But, we agreed, that’s true of lots of industries.

What sets ours apart, we decided, is that so many of us grew up as tinkerers and amateurs, teaching ourselves how to use Photoshop, how to work in html — and later, Flash — to put up our own sites, and then blog about what we’d learned with other weirdos.

We didn’t find our industry as much as it found us. We were doing this stuff anyway. Now we could get paid for it? Awesome.

Jump-cut to today. Philosophically, that tinkerer’s spirit will always be a huge part of who we are, but the reality is that as it matures, the digital industry is attracting more and more people as an industry rather than a mindset or culture.

That’s creating some tension. If you want proof, look to designer blogs asking questions like, “Should designers code?” Even ten years ago, that kind of handwringing didn’t come up much, if at all. Back then, although we all had our individual super powers, we all sort of did everything. And we liked it that way.

With today’s increased complexity and specialization, those days are mostly over. This is both a good thing and an inevitability — the industry has grown up.

But how do we maintain that earlier mentality — the stuff that attracted so many of us to the business in the first place? How do we make “the new normal” as fun and fulfilling as the old days when we mucked through sites in a garage somewhere?

Here are a few things that have worked over the years.

Mess Around

In my career, I’ve seen too many people pay lip service to the idea of experimentation, and then do nothing. Stop it. Don’t talk about fostering a “culture of innovation”. Don’t brainstorm about something you want to try in future. Don’t say you’ll do a hack day “as soon as the schedule clears”. Put the hack day on the schedule, and respect it like client work. Start something. Do something. Be terrible at it until you get better.

Kevin Ashton says it best in “How to Fly a Horse”: “Nothing begins good, but everything good begins. Everything can be revised, erased, or rearranged later. The courage of creation is making bad beginnings.”

Read and Share

If you’re not encouraging everybody in your agency to be constantly reading stuff — not just industry stuff, but general knowledge — and sharing it around, you’re missing an awesome opportunity. Encouraging a breadth of knowledge begets more curiosity and experimentation, and that always leads to good things.

At Jam3, we have a #readme channel in Slack for exactly this kind of sharing. We also host regular internal all-agency events that let people talk about something they’ve learned or are passionate about. We call it “Beer O’Clock”, and we do it on Friday afternoons because that works best for us. Call yours whatever you like and do it whenever it’s most convenient for your team. The only thing I’d really be a stickler about is the inclusion of beer.

Train and Cross-Train

This one’s pretty basic: people should be given as many opportunities to learn new stuff as your agency can afford. On top of the obvious things like relevant conferences, consider getting designers to do coding classes and vice versa. It’ll help foster a more generalist mentality that can exist alongside the specialized disciplines. This will yield make your agency better — and faster than you’d expect.

Give It Away

Your shop is probably using open source code. Awesome! Smart use of open source libraries for things like simple social integrations lets you put more focus on the stuff that needs to be custom. That’s good for everyone. But there’s a tradeoff: you need to make sure you give something back to the industry, too. It could be code, it could be a process you’ve learned, or it could be a bunch of assets. Whatever it is, get it out there. The industry literally depends on it.

Push It

Sites like Dribbble and Codrops are awesome for inspiration and connection, but the downside is that looking at each others’ stuff so much has the tendency to turn us into a weird amorphous design and code Borg. To avoid the sea of sameness, experiment harder. Play with 10 design ideas and throw out any that don’t make you feel a bit uncomfortable or have you wondering if it’s gonna work. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel on every job; but it should never feel like a hamster wheel, either.

Here’s the thing: none of the aforementioned strategies should be new to anyone, but they’re still worth repeating. I’ve found that no matter how much they’re ingrained in your DNA, you still always have to prod yourself and your whole team to follow them. I like to think they keep that tinkerer mentality alive.

In closing, I think the biggest opportunity in the “new normal” is something we haven’t done all that well up to now: designing experiences with real intent and purpose. Too much of the digital age’s first 20 years (or at least my first 20 years) was just taken up with making cool shit. We’re now under more pressure than ever to communicate focused ideas, to be effective, and to make things truly memorable. That starts with intent. If we continue to tinker, and we do it with intent, the next 20 years will be way better than the first.

The bad news is that it’s harder than ever to do this well; the good news is that when you do, it’s as rewarding as nailing your first sick design or “hello world”.

Greg Bolton, Jam3

Greg Bolton, Jam3

About the Author: As Creative Director for Jam3, Greg brings more than 15 years of experience in the advertising and marketing business. He’s held creative leadership positions at top-tier global agencies like Leo Burnett and Edelman. Long before that, he cut his teeth at digital shops like Teehan + Lax, Organic and henderson bas. His work has been recognized at the One Show, SXSW, Cassies and the Marketing Awards, to name a few.