You Can Stop Learning When You’re Dead

Because you’re not done yet.

I’ve been a Mule a year.

The first five months of that year I spent as an intern during my last semester of school. Now that life isn’t being measured in Springs and Falls, it’s an opportunity for a little introspection. We spend a lot of time talking about what it means to be a designer, but rarely about what it means to become one.

The reality is that school didn’t prepare me to be a designer—even after running my school’s little graphic design shop. It gave me a certain number of tools with which I could make things, but the stakes for students are incredibly low. (This is something I could only admit after I stopped staring at it through the lens of apocalyptic college neurosis).

Following instructions for a few sleepless nights—which was dumb, because no one does their best work when they’re exhausted and deranged— was often all that anyone needed to pass. No one’s funding or livelihood depended on what I made. Instead my professors encouraged me to experiment, to try new materials, mediums, and ideas, to find “a voice.” Despite the bandsaw scars and solvent burns, I’m deeply grateful to have had that opportunity, but my “voice” and wanton experimentation don’t solve problems.

This led to one of the toughest realizations: I’m not making things for myself anymore. My personal glory wasn’t important compared to building a thing to fulfill the client’s needs. Something to validate the trust (and money) they’d invested in Mule.

“I’m not making things for myself anymore”

Now I’m surrounded by researchers, strategists, developers, and other designers—all of whom are much, much better at their jobs than I was. In school I developed strong opinions about Important Design Things. But my coworkers had their own opinions, vetted by their experience. This wasn’t a new frontier for them; they’ve been practicing their respective crafts for decades.

I listened to them (and still do daily). Titles aside, we’re all designers here. Initially Mule feedback was so much more terrifying than class critiques. I was acutely aware of how unsophisticated my work was. I’ve since learned they never dissect my comps, logos, or prototypes out of spite. They had made the same mistakes I was creating and had learned how to fix them, sparing me a lot of pain. (Thanks, guys.) Critique has never been a judgement of me, or about me at all—it’s about the work, and if it accomplishes what we need it to.

I did learn that accepting feedback didn’t destroy my ownership of the work, because it wasn’t mine to own in the first place. I learned that wrecking your sanity and personal well-being over precious artifacts wasn’t what shipped good design—it’s the willingness to put the client’s needs above all. Every day I’m aiming to build things that embody the dedication and patience Mule has shown as they’ve taught, supported, and helped shape me.

Most of all, I learned that even after going to school to become a designer, I’m still learning how to be a designer. When I left school, I thought I was done being a student. Nothing could be further from the truth. The longer we work at this, the more we realize we’re still learning.

The best thing about leaving school was loving to learn again.