20 reflections from 20 years in the business of design

Time flies. It is now 20 years since I began my design and business journey. The early beginnings in 2002 were obviously very adventurous, wild and unpredictable when the internet was still in diapers and people mostly had dial-up connections. At that time, the business of web design and user experience barely existed in comparison to the present. Reaching such a career milestone makes me think and provides a moment to pause and reflect. So, I put together the 20 most significant learnings and reflections that, I feel, are worthy of sharing.
By Jan Takacs, 14th December 2022

It all started 20 years ago

My design journey began roughly 20 years ago at the age of 15. It was the autumn of 2002. I was running around Czech towns with my friend and colleague in cheap suits and selling websites to small and medium businesses.

We were junior entrepreneurs, or at least we thought we were. Pitching and selling simple website solutions. It was also the first time in my life when I started to make a bit of money by designing, coding and delivering digital solutions that required practical implementation at the intersection of branding, web design and marketing.

Obviously, in 2002, the world was quite different. I remember many places were still using a dial-up connection to access the internet (56 Kbps). Websites were not commonplace and were somewhat of a hard sell. So, the beginnings were rough and adventurous, as you can imagine.

Now, 20 years later, in 2022, it marks a significant milestone in my career because it already has been 20 years of designing something.

One-way plane ticket to Asia

In the early stages, I learned design and business fundamentals on the fly during high school. Later, I founded a boutique design consultancy while studying economics and business management. After obtaining my Master's degree, in 2014, I decided to sell all my possessions and bought a one-way flight ticket to Thailand to live as a digital nomad with the simple idea of just running my business remotely.  

Unfortunately, it all eventually crashed. So I had to figure things out and decided to pivot and shift my clientele from the West to the East, settled down in Southeast Asia and ended up working and collaborating with many start-ups across the Asia Pacific.

Afterwards, I somehow became a manager and a leader in the corporate world, responsible for designing solutions for some of the world's leading Fortune 500s and millions of users.  

Ultimately, during the pandemic, I pivoted again and accepted an executive design role in a unicorn insurtech start-up as a head of product design. Coincidentally, it also marks a special anniversary, as it is now 20 years from the moment the journey started.

20 reflections and learnings from 20 years in the industry

Reaching such a milestone makes me think. It has been a long time designing (and selling, shaping, and scoping) many solutions in many countries and organisations. Plenty of apps, websites, software, data visualisations, proposals, and presentations,... Lots of projects, collaborations and assignments across three continents, more than 40 markets and possibly tens of millions of users.

As I reminisce, I want to highlight the most significant 20 reflections and learnings that I believe are worth sharing from looking back at the past 20 years in the design industry.

1You have to be able to sell. Many designers might not fancy hearing this, but it's critical. Being able to sell doesn't mean you have to run around and randomly sell your products or services. Instead, it means conveying a message, a value proposition or a problem clearly and confidently while persuading people. Simply put, the ability to sell is necessary and worth honing and improving as early as possible.

2Attitude often matters more than skills. How we handle dealing with different people, problems, and situations makes or breaks our careers in a more significant way than our hard skills would. The attitude with which we deal with given circumstances changes our life trajectories (for better or worse). It's frankly OK not to be the greatest designer with a perfect skill set, but having the right attitude to bring to the table is non-negotiable. People usually remember how we make them feel more than the work itself. And they decide if they want to work with us or not in the same way.

3Underestimating the importance of good visual design means losing many opportunities. People are highly sensitive towards aesthetics, as it forms around 94% of our first impressions. As designers, we have a unique opportunity to use this to our advantage. During my 20 years in the business, having aesthetically pleasing products, presentations or materials always served as a fantastic door opener for further engagement. Of course, the substance has to be there, but after my experiences, I would never underestimate the visual side of things. Anywhere.

4To keep the passion for design alive, having side hobbies is necessary. When we do design full-time to pay our bills, the relationship changes. At that moment, losing the original passion for design is easy and dangerous. Because when that happens, our entire work decays. Having personal side projects without many rules is invaluable to keep our passion for design alive. As when we lose it, it's tough to get it back.

5International mindset is real and critical for designers. They say you can only be a real chef if you have moved abroad and experienced, lived and prepared cuisine in various places. From my observation, the same applies to design. Designers I see struggling the most are usually those who spend their whole life in the country they were born and raised in.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Attitude often matters more than skills. How we handle dealing with different people, problems, and situations makes or breaks our careers in a more significant way than our hard skills would.

6Cultural awareness matters more than ever for designing successfully. People are different across the world. Red colour means blood and violence in one place, prosperity in another. Candidly speaking up is appreciated somewhere; looked frowned up somewhere else. To design successfully, embracing the diverse world and constantly familiarising ourselves with different cultures and people is necessary.

7Admitting mistakes is a sign of strength, not weakness. When I became a manager for the first time, I thought I always had to be right to earn respect. It turned out it doesn't work like that at all. Situations where we lose our ego and change direction after listening to solid rationale and reasoning are a sign of strength, not weakness, especially in leadership. It also allows for building better rapport and earning respect from colleagues.

8Nobody cares about your career. OK, there will definitely be people who do, but in most cases, it's only up to you in the end. No one is more responsible for our career growth and trajectory than ourselves. If you want to be significant, you have to make it happen. Uniqueness helps. A niche within the niche works. It's a heavily saturated world where standing out from the crowd is hard.

9There is no such thing as an ideal design process. In reality, in most cases, we can't execute the 'pure' design methodology (ala double diamond) end to end. The 'ideal' examples we see in many webinars and portfolios distort our perceptions. The real business environment is messy, unforgiving and unpredictable. You have to be able to adapt and adjust your methodology and expertise accordingly. Otherwise, designers tend to be run over or, worse, ignored.

10Communicate well or watch others succeed. The quality of our verbal and written communication directly correlates with career progression. We either get better at it or risk being sidelined by better communicators.
Grab operations span across 8 Southeast Asian countries (Source: Grab)
Networking is a superpower. The world is big. Exploring beyond our current bubble, city and region and creating a diverse group of connections, not limited to fellow designers, works wonders.

11Our success as designers is largely defined by how well we can connect with the non-design world. Most decision-makers and people in power are not designers. Hence, success depends on our understanding of others and their work, not the other way around.

12The world is moving fast; never wait. Proactiveness is everything. I realised that 'to be is to do' works. Idleness gets us nowhere.

13Networking is a superpower. The world is big. Exploring beyond our current bubble, city and region and creating a diverse group of connections, not limited to fellow designers, works wonders. It paves the way for unknown, surprising and significant opportunities. I wish I had invested more time and energy into networking even earlier than I did.

14Connecting by adding value to people's lives always delivers. When we produce or offer things that help others, we create a fertile environment to create new bonds, connections and friendships.

15Adopting the concept of a beginner's mind is key to better adaptability. The world is changing fast. Industries, jobs and tools come and go. Therefore, to stay relevant, it proves tremendously helpful to adopt an attitude of openness and use curiosity to continuously ask questions and hone active listening skills.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
The world is changing fast. Adopting the concept of a beginner's mind is key to better adaptability. As industries, jobs and tools tend to come and go.

16Adding by subtraction is a sign of maturity. Products, value propositions or presentations are (in most cases) overwhelming. Too much content, information or features. Taking away elements which do not serve any purpose and leaning towards simplicity is a sign of a mature, experienced designer.

17It's not worth losing your authenticity because of a job. Environments surrounding us play a significant role and heavily influence our thinking and decision-making. It's sometimes easy to give in and slowly change who we are because it would make our career progression easier or because we once received some harsh feedback. I strongly advise against it. Staying authentic made me happier, more comfortable and allowed me to have memorable interactions with people around me.

18Best things come alive through creation. We are often victims of over-researching, over-analysing or over-thinking. Musicians and comedians often say their best inspiration comes while creating new material. The same applies to design. It's hardest to do the first step, but it usually flows nicely after that.

19A lazy mouth is a sheer disaster. It might come across as bold or even insensitive, especially in certain cultures or countries, but based on my observations during the last 20 years in the industry, speaking out, sharing ideas loudly or raising tough questions even to the most senior audience helps us more often than not. People value honesty, candidness and harsh truths. It also helps us gain visibility, which is critical.

20When in trouble or doubt, slow down and zoom out. We are living in an increasingly accelerating world. It's hard to reflect and think strategically while constantly moving at light speed. To progress, grow or achieve our goals, it helps to slow down, clarify our thoughts and evaluate our direction, whether in our professional or personal life.
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