Why Automattic’s remote design team is anything but isolating

I didn’t study design in college. In fact, I’ve only ever taken one professionally sanctioned design class in my life. I initially got into design because there wasn’t a designer at my first company and someone needed to do those projects. When I quickly realized that design work was the only work I ever wanted to do all day long, I quit my job to teach myself design.

I’m pretty sure some of my initial Google search history looked like:

  • How do you teach yourself design without going to design school?
  • Can you teach yourself design without going to design school?
  • Is quitting my job to teach myself design without going to design school a giant mistake that will ruin my career prospects for the next decade?

But it was too late. I was in love and so I went ahead and jumped into the deep end, alone. Very alone. At that point, I didn’t know a single Real Designer. Seriously, not one. I wasn’t sure how to even get started.

I quickly found myself deep in the self-taught designer Cave of Isolation, with only the flickering light from video tutorials and sassy Adobe forum moderators to keep me company. I was ravenous for contact with Real Designers. I wanted feedback, I wanted information, I wanted to know “How do I get better?!”

I shoved my fledgling portfolio in the face of anyone who accidentally made eye contact with me for too long. I badgered them with questions about skillsets I could improve in, gaps I needed to fill in my resume. And then I would go and do and learn and improve.

I spent so. much. time. working in isolation, taking 4 hours to do something that now would take only a few minutes. While it was brutally frustrating at times, there was also an unexpected liberation at that point in my career. I didn’t know what I was doing and I felt absolutely fine admitting that. I said it all the time. I gave myself permission to fail on the way to success.    

As my career progressed, I eventually found myself working with the long-coveted Real Designers. But a funny thing happened. The more my work involved other designers, the more I withdrew my permission to not know it all.

My desire for information was supplanted with a desire to not be Found Out. Thoughts like, If I ask questions, they’ll know I don’t know. Be quiet, pull it off, and act like you’ve known that keyboard shortcut since you were a zygote.

I hadn’t counted on the nearly primal pull to not be Found Out. I’d spent years desperate to be surrounded by designers that I could learn from. But once I finally had those resources around me, I ceased to take advantage of them. I found myself back in the Cave I’d started in, furiously working out how to do it on my own.

When I first joined Automattic, an entirely remote company, I worried that I would double down on that isolation. I was equally thrilled and terrified to be surrounded by so many Insanely Talented Real Designers. The knowledge! The skill! The-most-definite-chance-of-being-found-out!

But in my last six months, I’ve found a delightful side effect to our remote work culture. I realized that when you’re surrounded by more than 50 Insanely Talented Real Designers who are constantly publicly posting their work, there is, in fact, nowhere to hide. And in so many ways, it’s beautiful.

We post everything. Our processes are laid out for everyone to see. Our messy initial explorations, our bad ideas, our great ideas — everything. I’m in daily, constant contact with the other designers on our team. They know what I don’t know. And then they help me figure it out. And it’s not even just my team that sees my process – it’s literally public to the entire company.

Being remote means we may be physically alone, but our actual work is more public, shared, and open than in any environment I’ve ever been in: the ability to comb through all of our designers’ projects; to get such complete insight to how people are approaching problems.

Retreating to the Cave of Isolation isn’t an option here. And it most certainly wouldn’t be effective. There is no way to successfully work in that style at Automattic. And for those of us inclined to try to “pull it off” alone, it’s the proverbial kick-in-the-butt needed.

I realized that I treated the concept of a Real Designer as a final destination; as an external facing label; someone who other people perceive as knowledgeable about design.; someone who just knows. Which, of course, is nonsense.

It’s why the first part of our company creed is “I will never stop learning.” The potential to constantly grow and change is what drew me to being a designer in the first place! And the best way to do that is to openly share your successes and your failures, and all the messy steps in between. So thank you, Automattic, for finally, and unceremoniously, shoving me out of the cave.

 

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