20 Things We Learned in 2020

January 7, 2021

The never-ending grind

Happy new year! Before 2020 started, we entered it bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with all the excitement that most of us have when a new year begins. Unfortunately, the year didn't continue in the way we hoped and I think many of us have a new and deep appreciation for the regular, mundane, and commonplace things we took for granted in the world before COVID.

Nonetheless, we adapted and we grew quite a bit last year. In order to start off 2021, we wanted to spend some time reflecting back on some of things we learned and relearned. We'd probably say this article is for those interested in our work philosophy and culture, whether a prospective partner or a peer.

1. Keep people at the center of your work.

At our core, we're designers and naturally gravitate toward human-centered design as the problem-solving methodology. But the point above is about more than that. For everyone we work with—coworkers, contractors, and clients—we were reminded that we need to always remember their humanity. When people suddenly need to reschedule a call or need a few more days to pay a bill, we can't forget the complexity of their lives because we get blinded by our own.

2. A great project doesn't mean a great client.

This was an unfortunate one to be reminded of this year, but it happens. There's nothing more disappointing than working on a potentially fun and interesting project with a client that doesn't treat you well. It can really take the excitement and energy out of the project and leave you deflated.

3. New things will always be on the horizon.

The world adapts. In-person meetings changed. Offices changed. Businesses changed. This is a double-edged sword, but something that can very much give us hope. We, as humans, are always evolving and innovating to adapt to our new environments. And these struggles inspire invention.

4. Ideas are nothing.

We work with a lot of early stage companies. We've had conversations with companies that have similar, if not identical, "solutions." We can't stress enough that ideas don't get people very far, action does. How do we practice this? All brainstorm and strategy meetings should end in tangible deliverables that build whatever we’re concepting. Strategy sessions only take you so far.

5. Start small and if it works, grow it.

Sometimes concepts are too big. It may seem like there are too many steps to see something come to life. If that's the case, make the concept smaller. Find the shortest and fastest routes to get that idea up and running. When you see the first leaf, water it more.

6. Perfect is an illusion and the illusion is the enemy.

As designers, we’re plagued with perfectionism. We want to get things perfect before shipping them. This year, we hope to cure ourselves of that even more. Let's push for all our community to be prolific.

7. Culture matters.

This matters: the people you surround yourself with and their values. It shapes what you accept and what you fight to change. When the people around you are scared or bitter, you can also begin to exhibit those emotions. If they're tired and can't find the energy to act, you can grow complacent. If they're passionate, your own heart can be set ablaze. This isn’t limited to your fellow coworkers and employees. Who you work for and who you partner with also feed into the amalgamation that is you. Stay positive and spend time with people who share your values.

8. Don't normalize toxic partnerships.

Money is important, but if a client is emotionally and financially abusive (yes, financial abuse is real), leave. It's not your fault and you're not the only freelancer or agency to have experienced this. We need to stop accepting the notion that clients (who are often larger than the creatives they hire) can pay late, disrespect our work, and expect unhealthy working conditions because of a misguided belief that we need them. There are good partners out there and they’re looking to work with people like you.

9. What they really needed wasn't speed, it was a time machine.

Sometimes, when you work with a client, they'll continually push you to deliver and ship work faster and faster. Sometimes, that speed will never be fast enough, because they really needed the work done before they told you about it. Communication is important here and keeping a detailed log of conversations and meticulously tracking goals will help the client not blame you.

10. Work life balance isn't just important, it is foundational.

In the midst of the pandemic, we were busier than ever. We should have felt secure and proud that we were such an asset to our clients' businesses during this massive time of change, yet we felt like we were drowning. Unable to breathe, unable to clearly think, and physically and creatively exhausted. Creative work is one of those things that you can't brute force continuously. You need to step away and come back for ideas to become sharper and clearer. Creative work becomes better with breaks, especially when you're subconsciously learning other things.

11. An office is a luxury, but it's not necessary.

For obvious reasons, we said goodbye to our office this year. But the truth is, it took some time for us to recalibrate our lives to working from home (see "work life balance"). We realized luckily everything we do doesn't need to be "in-person", but sometimes, we slipped into the never-ending wheel of rolling out of bed to sit at the computer and stopping only to sleep. Offices tend to structure your day. You work at the office, and when you go home, (those of us who are lucky) you can leave the work. However, we are very excited about all the tools that have become normalized for remote work. Looking forward to working with a more remote team in the future as we will stay remote for some time.

12. We are our client's punching bag & therapist at the same time.

Our clients are human and when their businesses are struggling, they are struggling.  It sucks that often the designers & marketers are made the scapegoat for a bad quarter, especially when we aren’t managing the full funnel.  But many times it’s also our responsibility to calm them down, make them look at the bigger picture, and build them up again.  We need to remind ourselves that to be a good partner and support team for our clients, we need a thick skin and to communicate when boundaries are being pushed too far.

13. In-person meetings aren't efficient.

One of the upsides of virtual meetings was eliminating commutes.  Looking back, it seems ludicrous that we would take the subway 20 minutes to a 45 minute meeting and then 20 minutes back to the office again. How much of our work days were interrupted by walks and subway rides around the city?  Not to mention all the small talk once you get there (though we sometimes do miss the in-person small talk).

14. We need to allocate time to market ourselves.

At the end of last year, we had a revelation that shouldn’t have taken us this long to discover: if we just took 10% of our own advice to our clients about marketing and applied it to our own business, it could be a game changer.  So much of our days are focused on our clients’ successes that we forget to even spend any time on our own. We’ve been lucky to have a sustainable business with no marketing, but relying on referrals can only take you so far.  Cue the new website launch in the first week of January...

15. Patience, patience, patience.

From Trader Joe's lines, Covid testing lines, to voting lines, 2020 has definitely been a lesson in patience.  Actually, the entire year was a lesson in delayed gratification.  Wait inside, don’t see anyone, don’t do anything for the promise that one day we will be free again. And yes, we hoped some people learned this lesson a little quicker or better than others, but truly our biggest takeaway is to embrace the slow.

16. Time is the most valuable.

When you're evaluating what things cost, don't forget that time is your most valuable asset. Don't give it away for free.

17. Double check the CC.

(Because your client might have dropped your entire team haha). Always double check who is CC’d in your email to sustain the lines of communications. When you're replying to someone's response, they might have accidentally replied just to you, so don't forget to add back the people you need to be in "the know." Also, remind everyone to reply-to-all occasionally. People probably are not realizing it.

18. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

The startup world has pushed speed as the most valuable tool for an early-stage company. It is one of the most valuable tools, but really growing a business isn't often done with a few all-nighters. You can't just be working today—you also need to be building tomorrow, so don’t forget to consider tomorrow when you're working today. The world keeps changing and new problems will always appear. Keep getting up. Make coffee. Exercise. Eat breakfast. The world hasn't ended yet. You'll need to keep going.

19. Science and facts matter.

Opinions don't, which might sound harsh, but that’s because a “position” matters. There’s a difference. A position is a conclusion based on facts, while opinions are loose thoughts. With the world consumed by a pandemic and misinformation, facts have never mattered more.

20. At the end, physical and mental health matter the most.

If you don't take time to take care of your physical and mental health, your work doesn't matter. Let me repeat:  If you don't take time to take care of your physical and mental health, your work doesn't matter. What's the point of producing great work and making a lot of money if you're not around to enjoy it?

For those that have made it down this far, thank you! We wish you the best this year! We hope to be writing more regularly, so please check in often. 😎

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