AMA with Kai Rader

Kai Rader, creative director of Mondo Robot, will be on hand to explain what skills are needed to become a successful designer in tech. It’s not just about knowing how to use Adobe Creative Suite or Sketch – it’s also about the soft skills like communication, and managing up and down. And he’ll be able to explain how to improve on them and utilize them effectively.

His AMA was held on October 10 at 12pm ET. Read below for his thoughts on how he defines success, and for a summary on what happened during the AMA.

1. What piece of advice do you wish you knew when you started your career?

If you don’t define your path, someone else will. There’s nothing wrong with letting your career journey unfold and taking it day by day. However, it’s important to step back from time to time and assess where your path is headed. The easiest way to understand if your headed in the right direction is to set a goal. Remember, this is a moving target. Goals change over time. The point is, put one out there.

2. How do you define success?

Is the work you’re doing moving you closer to your goal? Is the work you’re doing aligned with your passion? Did you learn something from the work you’re doing? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then you’ve been successful.

3. What is the biggest misconception about what you do?

That design is a clean, tidy process. All the obvious evidence, like portfolio case studies, Behance and Dribbble make it seem that way. The truth is that design is messy. Every project is different. Every designer is different. Every client is different. Experience is our navigator.

4. What traits or skills do you believe one needs to have the same job title as you or to do what you do?

This sounds cliché, but passion is #1. You have to love design. After that, soft skills become more and more important as you move into director-level positions. Things like the ability to listen with an open mind, the ability to communicate clearly, and the ability to make decisions are crucial.

Ask Me Anything Summary

Question (Q): We’ve received a lot of questions about navigating one’s career in design. But could you start us off by sharing a bit about your background and how you worked your way up to being the creative director of Mondo Robot?

Kai Rader (KR): Absolutely. I don’t have formal training in design. I studied computer science and fine art in school. My outlet became the Internet. I would build websites and awful Flash animations on the side. From there, I eventually realized that I loved graphic design and managed to sneak into some design classes. I landed my first job at a small advertising agency and that’s when my design education really started.

I tried to soak up as much as I could from the more experienced designers around me. I cherished the lessons I learned and used those to build up my skills.

To make a long story short, I didn’t have a master plan of becoming a Creative Director. I just tried to do the best I could with each project I was given, whether it was branding, a website, a TV spot, social content…whatever it was. That variety gave me the background I needed to lead a design team focused on the product space

Q: What are some tips you can provide to a designer who is just starting out in their career, or is a career switcher into design? Aside from the technical skills, what can they do at their first job to set up a good foundation for their career?

KR: There are fundamentals that every designer needs to study. I don’t want to say master, because that might take a lifetime. And if I had to pick, I think designers who want to work in product design should focus on layout and typography. If you look at just about any website or app, the majority of what you are working with is text… There are more resources than ever to learn from — classic books like “The Elements of Typographic Style” or much more focused courses on UI design like Steve Schoger’s Refactoring UI. Lastly, really analyze and even try to [reproduce] the work of designers you admire. It’s amazing practice and an efficient way to build up your eye. Part of being a good designer is developing “taste”. You’ll hear agencies like BASIC talk about this, as a designer, it’s your job to have good taste.

Q: Designers also like to be original in their designs. But how does one balance originality with basics in layout and typography, and overall pragmatic design?

KR: Great question! I believe [in] the old saying that “you need to know the rules in order to break them”. The fundamentals will help you create a design that accomplished a certain goal. Design needs to meet a user need or communicate an idea or sell socks, whatever it may be… in order to do that effectively you need to understand how to use type and color and space. You need to understand how to create hierarchy.

Originality is difficult. Some designers develop a style over time, and “time” is the key word. It takes practice. The more you seek inspiration in unique places, say fine art books as opposed to Dribbble, the more likely you are to come up with something unique.

Design should help a person do what they want to do.

Q: What are some examples of great UX/UI design that you have seen in your career? What are some bad designs? (Perhaps examples, if you can share, where originality didn’t help at all?)

KR: I don’t know why, but this site is the first to come to mind: Yellowstone National Park Bears. It’s a few years old now, but it stuck with me over the years. It utilizes design to tell a story in a more engaging way than writing could do alone. On the opposite end of the spectrum, have you ever used “reader mode” in Safari? To me, that’s a great example of design because it helps the user accomplish their goal of reading content without distraction. Design can do that. It should do that. Design should help a person do what they want to do.

Q: I started my career in development, moved to front end, and then about a year ago realized that I love design and wanted to pursue it full time. However, it’s a little tough trying to land that FIRST design role because there seems to be so much to learn. I’m finding it a little difficult to focus my learning. Any tips? I don’t want to dive into everything at once, but I want to have a solid foundation.

KR: I hear you. There’s a lot to learn and it can feel overwhelming. Are you getting any opportunities to help with design in your current role? Here’s something to keep in mind: don’t let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of practice. In the beginning, your designs won’t be very good, but don’t let that stop you. Maybe you pick a flow from an existing product and redesign it. Pick something that make you think about user interactions and how something works in addition to how something looks. It’s a more effective approach than picking a single screen to redesign. On top of the resources I mentioned above, study the dominant design systems so you understand how to use design patterns. Material Design from Google, the IBM design system, Apple’s guidelines, etc.

Q: As you mentioned before, soft skills are equally important. On top of the technical know-how, what advice would you give to others who are joining a new team for the first time? Particularly with new, junior designers. What is the first thing they can do to ensure a smooth entry into an already-working team?

KR: Soft skills become more and more important as you move through your career. They are critical in building relationships, and we all know that your network is the most effective tool in finding a new job or making a career switch. One of the main things I notice with junior designers is that they get defensive about their work. They take critique personally. Remember, critique is meant to make work better. Judgement is being passed on the work, not on the person. A junior designer who is open-minded, calm, and receptive to feedback will make a strong impression and fit right into any team. Better yet, a junior designer should be EAGER for feedback.

The other important skill for a junior designer to develop is focus. There are so many distractions that can prevent you from getting into the zone (like email and Slack). Learn how to set aside time to work interrupted. I like the Pomodoro method.

Remember, critique is meant to make work better. Judgement is being passed on the work, not on the person.

Q: What advice can you provide in regards to managing up / sideways? Giving feedback to either someone higher than you or equal in hierarchy or level?

KR: Managing up is hard. Tact is essential. I think the first step is to develop some sort of rapport with the individual. Engage in small-talk, get to know them personally. That should make it easier for you to say something like “Listen, I have some ideas on how to improve situation XYZ. I think it would make a difference moving forward. Would it be OK if I shared those with you? I’m happy to write them up in an email if that’s easier.”

Make it clear that it’s your goal to improve operations for everyone involved. Deliver feedback directly to the individual as opposed to going around their backs… gossip can be toxic.

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