More than making rectangles

More than making rectangles - old computer with rectangles

I remember the first time I opened Microsoft Paint and created something on a computer. Drawing digitally captured me. I spent hours illustrating Ninja Turtles, creating maps, and designing plans for forts I had grand plans to build.

The first time logging onto the internet brought the same euphoria that Microsoft Paint delivered. That curious screech of a 56k dial tone still rings in my ears. Suddenly the world was at my fingertips. Well, not so suddenly; it was dial-up internet after all. But this was a new world to explore and a world I could help build. It started small with creating a screen name, my persona (ECDrummer618), and grew as I discovered Geocities. Not only could I view websites, but I could also build them! My love for creating the digital world continued to snowball, and when it was time to pick a college and a career, I knew my path had to be making things with a computer.

When I landed my first job out of college, the iPhone had just come out. Print was a dying medium, and I was ‘the young kid’ at my design agency. “Kyle, we need to start selling websites; you need to learn how to build them.” So I dove into WordPress and learned front-end development. I wasn’t ‘qualified,’ but not many people were. I had the same feeling again. It was magic. I was building a world for people to interact with. And I was getting paid to create. 

After a couple years of working 60+ hours a week, it was time to leave the agency. So I struck out on my own and started freelancing. I joined a new site, “Dribbble.” Every day, community members posted their work in progress, UI designs, illustrations, and skeuomorphic apps. I was blown away and challenged by the level of craft going into making apps like Path, Clear, and RDIO. It was so fun to be a maker and participate with the community then.

And then things started to change.

Change didn’t happen overnight. But slowly, data took over. Growth hacking became a thing. Optimization was a focus, and efficiency was the new ruler.

Not all changes are bad; in many cases, this evolution pushed our industry to new levels and brought about great things. But it felt like the love of creating was being pushed aside. Once the focus shifted to scaling at all costs, I noticed burnout rising and my peers falling out of love with the industry.

If you’ve been around the tech long enough, you will witness folks become disenchanted. And for a good reason. You even feel this pull yourself. You spend less time creating and more time “solving problems” and optimizing the funnel. You spend less time building experiences customers will love and more time advocating not to introduce dark patterns that squeeze money from them. Corporations are obsessed with focusing talented individuals on manipulating users.

It’s easy to become disenchanted. It’s easy to believe you are just making rectangles.

Are we just creating rectangles?

Maybe it’s just me, but I strongly dislike the phrase “we just make rectangles.” It feels so defeatist and loses sight of that magic I felt the first time I created something in the digital world.

I recently was inspired by an ad for a job posting on a podcast I love:

This post got me thinking. How do we ditch the idea of just creating rectangles?

What if you found that spark?

What if you got excited to make product design an artistic medium? Art and science are meant to be paired together. But how do you bring back the craft? How do you inspire the love of creating again?

For me, the company I work for makes a big difference. If I am building something I believe in and care about, then I am motivated. But it doesn’t end there.

Next, I start with making. No, not just designing a feature; I mean just making something for fun. So for me, it looks like a light-hearted side 

project. I created a Nic Cage-themed annotation kit. Is it useful? No. Is it fun? Absolutely!

Every year my family creates a ridiculous holiday card.

I create old-school interfaces.

I build out icon kits for streaming services.

Why do I do it? I make things for the fun of it. For the joy it brings. For the wonder it creates. And I take this back to my day job. I get excited and feel fortunate to design for a living. So I take as much curiosity, creativity, and wonder into my job and try and create things for the customers I make things for. I want their days to be better because of what I make. So I advocate for them and push my designs as hard as possible. I want to bring joy to those mundane tasks. 

Our industry has plenty of terrible practitioners, and gross things happen, but there has to be a path forward that doesn’t lead to apathy. 

I’m a designer, but it’s my choice to make more than rectangles. I get to make magic. I get to create a world that didn’t exist until I participated in making it. So call me an optimist; tell me I’m making too much of what I do. But at the end of the day, I get to do what I love: making things.