How to Become a 99th Percentile Designer
The power of leveraging your context to find the most suitable domain & niche.
How to Stand Out
Since mentoring hundreds of designers over the years, the question I get the most often is, "how do I stand out as a new designer?" Looking back, the advice I gave in the past was too generic and didn’t provide real value. I now believe the best way to stand out and have opportunities come to you is to create your own magnetic luck. In my last post, I defined magnetic luck as the state where good things and valuable opportunities come to you, unsought. In this post, I'll talk about how to do just that.
Winner-Take-All vs. Auction Markets
Before I dive into how to create magnetic luck in more detail, let's address the current state of the job market. There are two kinds of job markets: “winner-take-all” and “auction.” Winner-take-all markets fit our traditional mental model of a successful careerist, "put in 10,000 hours to be 99th percentile in your field". Thanks, Malcolm Gladwell, but this doesn't help junior designers. Nobody's going to put 10,000 hours into something without seeing some results.
Actual examples of winner-take-all job markets are few and far between. They include professional sports, competitive chess, stand-up comedy, acting, music, and writing. See a familiar pattern here? These jobs are evaluated based on outstanding excellence in a very specific skill. These jobs often require the person to start training as a child or spend decades refining their craft. Design is not one of these jobs. Design is not a winner-take-all-market.
It falls squarely in the second category: auction markets. Auction markets follow more of a "lock and key" model. Employers will value certain employees more or less depending on how well their skill sets meet their business's needs. To take this to an extreme, I believe that seniority in design is also fluid to some extent. Sure, a senior designer will always have more general experience and learn faster. For instance, if I were placed in a VR design team, I'd probably be worse than their interns. I leveraged this thinking to land several intermediate job offers out of school. I knew my strengths and focused on companies that valued my specific skill set. It's much easier to unlock great jobs if you know what kind of locks you're looking for.
Finding the Lock to your Key
New designers who believe the design industry is a winner-take-all market often have very generic profiles. I can't count the number of times I've seen a Yelp or Spotify redesign where the sole goal is to "improve usability." How bland. Unless you are incredibly talented or have something unique, your application will get lost in the sea of 100,000 bootcamp graduates every quarter. Junior designers who come off as generic are like shoddy lock picks, but really bad ones. The generic designers who have a lot of career success are much more experienced and can genuinely solve a wide range of problems with their diverse skill set. These designers are rare, and I equate them to skeleton keys. Early on in your career, it's not worth trying to fashion yourself as a skeleton key because it's much easier to find the right locks for a "you-shaped key."
You Aren’t Starting from Scratch—the Power of Context
At this point, many of you might be shouting, "What do you mean unique skill set? I just started learning design! I don't know anything yet!" Career switchers often have the notion that they are starting all over again from scratch. I disagree. I believe you know much more than you think you do.
Instead, I want to introduce the concept of context as a skill set. Before learning design, you probably studied something different in school or worked in another industry. Perhaps you speak a different language, have lived in a foreign country, or deeply understand a different culture. All of this is context, and it's precious.
Regardless of what product you work on, the first step is always to gather context. If you have close proximity to a product's market or customer base, you have a considerable advantage compared to those who do not. Your industry context allows you to immediately understand who the customers are, their pain points, and the competitive landscape. Your cultural context is also valuable when your product exists in foreign markets. For instance, in Chinese markets, users prefer browsing over searching; in the right situations knowing this cultural context could help your team mitigate huge risks.
All of this is valuable if you can find the related companies that would value your context. Most tech companies hire for diversity because they see context as a strength. You'd be surprised at what connections you can make once you re-evaluate your past life experiences through the lens of design.
The Non-Technical Skills
Many new designers only advertise their technical skills because they think that’s the only thing that matters. In my opinion, technical skills are the most common and least valuable once you get past the junior career stage. If you were to ask any experienced designer what skill is most important, all of them would say: "communication." Don't forget all the valuable soft skills you've built up. Other valuable soft skills for designers include teamwork, collaboration, project management, and emotional intelligence.
The current state of user interfaces is minimal and easy to create with top-tier tools like Figma. It’s actually not very hard to get to "production-level quality," even if you just started learning design a few months ago. You wouldn’t be able to tell a senior and junior designer’s UI apart if there was no context. Technical skills are becoming more accessible with new tools and frameworks being available. Just a few years ago, I had to design screens one by one inside Photoshop. Everything took forever. Therefore, you should focus on soft skills and building context, which will always be difficult to replicate.
Find Problems and Be Curious
You’ve already been molded a certain way based on the context you have. As you explore domains, you should start with the locks you have a lot of context with. You might as well start somewhere that gives you a head start.
For example, let's say you worked in accounting before design. Sure, you might've hated it, but think back to your pain points as an accountant, particularly related to any software you've used. Are any of those problems interesting to you? Can you think of at least one way to improve the experience through design? Good, you've found a domain that leverages your context.
Don’t get me wrong; you don't need to become a designer that focuses solely on accounting software; just use it as a starting point. If you find yourself pondering, "Why was it designed this way"? That's a good sign. To be successful in a domain, you must be curious about the problems within it. Use that curiosity to think of opportunities you can act on as a designer.
I like to frame opportunities I come up with in the "how might we…” (HMW) format. Good HMW's aren't too limiting and don't imply a specific solution. A good template is “How might we __________(intended experience) for __________(primary user) so that __________(desired effect).” With our accountant as an example, they might come up with something like, "How might we re-design this form for our finance team to make it easier and faster to fill out?" If that opportunity sounds interesting to you, this is the fun part.
There is a distinction between HMWs and problem statements, so don’t confuse them. For example, a problem statement might be: "Our research showed that the finance team is having a hard time completing certain accounting forms in time, leading to costly delays." The corresponding HMW statement would be, "How might we redesign the forms for the finance team to be easier and faster to fill out?"
Once you have your HMWs, you should start forming hypotheses. It might have been a long time since your last science class, so I'll recap what a hypothesis is. A hypothesis is a testable statement, often articulated as an if-then-statement; “if__________(hypothesis) then __________(conclusion), because __________(supporting evidence).”
Having a testable hypothesis allows you to validate your design solution with research or data. An example for our accounting form HMW would be, "If we reduced the number of input fields by automatically pulling as much data as we can from the system, then it'll take less time for the finance team to fill out."
Pick an interesting hypothesis you think you can learn a lot from; then create a case study around it; rinse and repeat. Hypothesis-based case studies allow you to demonstrate your context and domain knowledge. Through this process, you might discover other, more exciting areas. Don't be afraid to explore until you find yourself constantly curious about a set of related problems. That's when you've found your domain niche.
A Real-Life Example
The example above is actually based on a real person, with some details obscured; I’d like to share her story. Before using this process, she had been applying to hundreds of jobs for months without any results. I convinced her to start exploring fin-tech domains first, even though it wasn't her immediate passion. During this process, she was able to find a few niche problem spaces she had a natural curiosity towards. As a result, she designed eight solutions to test six different hypotheses across three different HMWs. Afterward, she turned them into case studies for her portfolio. The next time she applied, I told her to make a list of companies in her domain with problems related to her niche. Although she only ended up sending out six applications, every one of them scheduled an interview, and she was ultimately able to find a great job to start her career.
Finding a domain is the most crucial thing a career switcher can do. The best designer will always be subjective based on the unique problems and the skills required to solve relevant problems. It's hard to achieve the 99th percentile in general design skills, but it’s much easier within a specific domain niche. In the next issue, I’ll go into more detail about how to “plant a flag” in your domain to create magnetic luck and attract opportunities. I hope you enjoyed this post!
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At the end of each email, I’ll also provide the single most impactful resource related to my topic. This week’s resource is Cedric Chin’s summary of “ So Good They Can’t Ignore you “ by Cal Newport. A lot of my advice stems from the concept of career capital in this book and builds on top of the career moat concept.