DODO-Designer: A Specie On the Edge of Extinction

“In 1859, Charles Robert Darwin published his book “On the Origin of Species”; his theory of Natural Selection. Natural Selection is the process for which organisms with favorable traits are more likely to reproduce and pass those traits to future generations. Over time this allows organisms to adapt to their environment and survive. This is what has been known as “Survival of the fittest”.

When I started my career more than 20 years ago, I was trained as a print designer. I learned about grids, typography, color theory, and a long list of skills I carry with me. Around 1996 I decided to share my time between designing print materials and making the first step in the new world of web design. It was one of those moments where I felt I needed to adapt to an upcoming change, one I felt would be big and would change my life.
I learned HTML, and sent annoying emails to my “web heroes”, asking for advice and any knowledge they could share with me. Little by little I submerge myself in the new world of the web. Without noticing I was evolving, developing new traits to survive a fast upcoming future. Around one year later I was working full time as a web designer.

I’ve always been a big believer of never stop learning, and do it on an active way. Looking for new things, searching, seeking with the voracity that the rest of my life dues allow me. It is not only a question of survival but an integrate part of my natural curiosity. Keeping a keen eye on new trends, new technology and new services, I try to grow as a professional. For the past year I feel as if I can barely keep up.  Expending at least two to three hours a day surfing the web, I read articles, and purchase books. Lately I’ve come to the theory that a new generation of web designers is surfacing in our profession. I call them the “new breed”.
These are new professionals born in the world of the world wide web, way pass HTML 1, tables and system fonts. They are an evolved new specie, a combination of graphic designer, user interface developer and front and back-end programmer. A mutation of nature.

Designing on the browser is gaining ground over Photoshop as a starting point for most of the web projects. With this evolution, old trained designers like myself (let’s consider old, those who started their career before 2000?), who developed a work process based on graphics editing programs like Photoshop, are starting to question if they have become a Breed on the Edge of Extinction.
Do not panic, I think there is still hope.

We are the 99%

There are thousands upon thousands of companies around the world designing websites. Without much Google search (maybe I should have) I could adventure to say that only a minority of those are what we considered in our field, “ vanguard. Small shops or big multinational, they all share one thing in common; the majority of their clients are willing to bet on their knowledge, and second, they have under their staff most of those “new-breed” designers. These companies have many major advantages over the rest of us. They attract most of the best designers and developers in the market. With incentives like, creative & ground breaking projects projects, often a fat pay-check, and the attractive promise of collaborating and learning from some of their best talented peers; which translates to a faster and better professional growth. They live in an environment that facilitates the breeding of new traits. Survival of the Fittest.

Unfortunately this evolved breed is just a minority within the field of web design; let’s call them the 1%. The rest of us work in a limited creative environment, with often strict budget conditions, unreasonable creative constraints, deign by committee, and less support for new ideas while working with ancient-established processes. This tends to attract a “less savvy pool of professionals (nothing personal, I belong to these group), and it doesn’t do much too facilitate adaptation to the new environment, let’s call them the 99%.

Not all of us can be a Jason Santa Maria or a Khoi Vinh (forgive me for mentioning only two of my favorite designers). Whether it is due to a lack of favorable traits (nothing wrong with that), vision, or training, the truth is that most of us struggle to keep up with the evolving environment. We fumble with a silos mentality and over specialization. Working systems based on a clear separation between designer and programmer, and no matter how many articles advocate for a change, it is difficult to break old habits.
This brings me to my next point; how do the 99% evolves.

99% of the articles about design nowadays are written by and for the 1%

I admire people who invest their personal time and talent sharing knowledge and advise with everybody else. Weader they do it because it brings them a popularity that will open doors for book deals, international presentations and interminable interviews, or they do it out of their own goodness, I have to thank them deeply because many of the things I’ve learn has been from them.

But something funny has seem to happen in the last five years that has change the general camaraderie we enjoyed before, the free sharing of ideas and experiences between equal peers, no matter the professional success or the differences on the set of skills. Now is all about: “I am an expert, a guru. I reached my dream job, I am one of the elite the 1% and I am going to tell you how it is done.

I have two big issues with this general approach:
First I dislike people who patronize me. If you are going to show me something, do it with grace and elegance, with humbleness and respect. Put yourself on my position and talk to me as an equal; even if you have to fake it.

Second, they are promoting the idea that if you don’t belong to the 1%, you are a failure. And not only that, it is all your fault. True every person make their own future, hard work goes a long way, but by many other circumstances many of us never had the chance to reach those opportunities that will help your rise to the top. Even more, not all of us consider success to work 15 hours on a 100 Fortune company.

I keep reading articles written by respected web-experts, designers and developers, but most of them —and I say most— are written for an audience that represents a minority in our profession; again here is the 1%. I want to learn from them, I want to raise to my full potential, but they seem to forget there is a bridge to build and cover between those who know and those who want to learn, and this bridge to reach the other side of the gap is not been address.
I would like to read more from designers that have build this platform, that have struggle crossing the gap, that had experiences I can feel identified with and understand their process, their way so I can follow behind their steps.

For those of you who are on this position, I invite you, I beg you to write and share. For those of us who get depress after reading articles that make us feel awkward and ill prepare, for those of us tired of titles and slogans like “How to be a successful designer” or “This is how I made it” I say; fuck’em, there is still hope. Work with what you have, always keep learning, be proud of your work and your profession, but never feel that you have to belong to the 1% to measure your success.


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