Born This Way: Millennial Designers Bring Their Values to Work

by Jamie Myrold

Not long ago, work/life balance was a hot topic, explored in detail in books, webinars, and conferences. But the way we live has changed, and it’s changed in a very compressed time frame. The rapid adoption of mobile devices and cloud computing has blurred the boundaries between work life and personal life, causing the two to become so blended that they can’t be balanced any more than coffee and cream can be balanced after they’re in the same cup. Today, the hot topic is work/life integration.

To design for an always-on society, a designer needs to connect with users differently than when designing for enterprise software that lives inside the corporate network and isn’t used “off-prem.” In a mobile world, users are more than their roles or permission levels; they’re people who are busy trying to do a good job while giving their families and friends the attention they deserve.

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Young designers seem to have an intuitive understanding of this. They’re the first generation to grow up with mobile devices and the first to consider their digital lives as meaningful as their physical lives. Now that they’re having kids of their own, some of them are checking to see which URLs are available before they settle on baby names.

This cohort is perfectly aware that their future employers will check their social media profiles, and they aren’t worried at all; the idea of having a work persona that’s separate from their private persona is alien to them. They know who they are and what they stand for, and that helps them make the choices they believe in.

Design/Business Integration

These designers are coming out of school with more business acumen than earlier generations of designers. Design school used to be solely about design; today, it’s normal for business topics to be integrated into degree programs, which makes perfect sense since the digital economy is design-driven.

Although one would expect younger people to be more idealistic than others, the young designers I work with are actually very practical. Instead of coming up with a vision and sticking to it, they tend to do the work of connecting with tech and business partners in order to gain an understanding of constraints before they ever start to wireframe. As a result, they waste fewer cycles and they can communicate a concept faster, at a higher fidelity, and with less effort than designers have been able to do historically.

This isn’t to say that millennials are not idealistic, but their idealism tends to come into play after their research is completed. They tend to bring a strong set of values to work, and that provides a framework for their ideals; they aren’t afraid to take a stand when they’re convinced that their concept is in the best interest of the user, the product, and the company, but they can adjust their ideas when management or the market decrees a change in direction.

Traits to Take Away

Of course, there is no age limit or expiration date on idealism, values, or business acumen. Designers from other generations can enhance their own skill sets by adopting some of the traits of their millennial colleagues.

Embrace Uncertainty
People with a strong sense of who they are and aren’t afraid to show it are more confident, and that comes through in their work. They don’t need to have answers for everything; they treat the design process as an exploration rather than a solution. That’s in line with today’s practice of constant iterations, in which improvements are not necessarily linear and there isn’t ever a perfect ending.

Receive and Give with Grace
Don’t get too attached to ideas in their early stages. There will always be additional input that can change the direction of the original project. That’s a two-way street; while executives may make decisions that will impact your work, they are also eager to gain more knowledge from people with other perspectives. Your insights are valuable, so share them.

Dig Deeper
Look beyond the design. Design isn’t just the pixels on a page or the labels in a wireframe, it’s about blending technology and business in a way that serves the users and supports the product strategy.  Keep peeling the layers of the onion, visualizing each step of the way, in order to understand how the parts interrelate and how the product can be made more strategic.

Build Relationships
Designers whose education emphasized project work tend to enter the workforce with the ability to collaborate and lead. Others may have to learn those skills on the job, but that’s okay. Get leadership practice by volunteering to manage projects and, if necessary, seek out management training. To be a good collaborator, be a good communicator. Keep others up to date on your progress and contribute ideas whether they enhance your role or not. If one of your ideas gets cut, don’t take it personally; just move on to the next idea. There will be plenty of chances to see your concepts come to fruition in the future.

A Natural Affinity

While work-life balance made sense for generations that expected a 9-5 job and a 40-hour week, the rise of mobile culture has made it hard to build a wall between work life and personal life. People can refrain from logging into corporate systems over the weekend, but it’s hard to ignore a text that pops up on a phone. Once read, the seed is planted—work needs me.

This generation doesn’t see work communications as an intrusion. They weren’t quite born into this mobile culture—they beat it by a few years—but they certainly were raised in it. Dipping in and out of work activities in off-hours isn’t a problem, as long as the interface makes it easy. Technology is part of their memories, it’s played a role in their relationships, it’s been a tool in their education… millennials are the closest thing to “native speakers” that we have.

Jamie Myrold is VP of Design at Adobe. Myrold has led large-scale design efforts at Adobe for more than 11 years, touching nearly every product in market today in some capacity. Most recently, she led the redesign of Adobe Acrobat and created the all-new Adobe Document Cloud.

Learn more about creative strategy and managing designers in Douglas Davis’ online course, Creative Strategy & the Business of Design.