design is everything

Design for Reality, Not Glory

I think I could say this about most people in tech – we are megalomaniacs. We want to build the best and the biggest. We are always designing our apps with scalability in mind. We tend to design for the largest possible audience.

Every app that launches on TechCrunch always addresses a huge market. You never read about a product addressing a small community. It’s always about the app with the biggest dreams going after the largest competitors.

Just take a quick scroll through Dribbble to see my point. It’s filled with generic chat apps and revolutionary social network redesigns – are these really doing anything to develop a designer’s skills?


I believe that designers take on projects with such an ambitious scale as a result of our egos.

What designers don’t realize though, is that many of the world’s most well-known products didn’t start with global ambitions. Rather, they often addressed a small, local need first and grew from there. Therefore, if you really want to develop your skills and produce a truly creative product, you will be much better off checking your ego and starting small.

Stop Inflating Your Ego

In the book “Ego is the Enemy,” Ryan Holiday uses past examples of famous figures – both successful and unsuccessful – to illustrate the adverse effects of the ego.

ego is the enemy

While Holiday writes to all industries, not just design, designers will learn a lot from him.

His book addresses the type of thinking that distracts us from designing a product for a small audience, which helps you and another five people instead of 100 million faceless people who you don’t know personally.

Designing with your ego creates a product that is diluted, unfocused, and just bland. Consider these well-known products that didn’t give into big thinking in the beginning.

  • Facebook was designed first for people at Harvard, not for a billion people around the world. If Mark Zuckerberg designed Facebook for a billion people on day one, it would have failed. Facebook was online for two years before opening itself up to the general public.
  • Uber was originally a black car service in San Francisco. Today, Uber has evolved from a local black car service, to a global ridesharing app, and now, to a service for lifestyle and logistics. In 2008, this wouldn’t have meant anything to anyone.
  • Flickr began as a photo-sharing feature within an online game. Only after the product had been perfected did the team realize that it could be applied more broadly. In 2005, Flickr was acquired by Yahoo. Today, it has 51 million registered users worldwide.

“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.”

― Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy

Get Out of Your Head!

Designers all have a tendency to turn their life into a story. We write a fantastic narrative of our past with ourselves at the center – I helped design billion dollar companies or I worked for [insert massive startup here] – and this distracts us from designing for reality.

We often produce concept work to develop or show off our abilities as designers.

What I’m suggesting is to not let your ego guide you toward producing a concept for another billion-dollar startup. These companies became the way they are over long periods of refinement and being patient. Therefore we can only possibly provide an undeveloped opinion on redesigning their product.

The only reason that we might strive to design for the best brands is to fulfill our own career narratives.

As designers, we need to get out of our head and look instead to immediate local problems that call for unique design solutions. Not only will this direct our abilities toward solving real problems, but it will also make us better designers while we’re at it.

There are often many lessons and opportunities surrounding us. However, if we’re caught up in the grandiose vision of our careers, these lessons will appear small or inconsequential, and we may miss them.

If you think that taking on a small project is demeaning to the potential scale of your work, get out of your head. Keep in mind that there is no one to perform for. And quite frankly, much less people are keeping tabs on your career than you may think. In fact, it’s likely that no one is. This can be hard to digest when you’re stuck inside your own head.

Don’t Linger on Past Successes

When we reminisce about our past successes, we forget about the hours of work and execution that got us to where we are today. So instead of dreaming about your story, get back to work and out of your head. Start a new page daily, and eliminate any ideas of grandeur.

“I was trapped so terribly inside my own head that I was a prisoner to my own thoughts.” – Ryan Holliday

Be a Student

In order for your design work to grow, you must be able to learn from criticism. Participating in the dialogue of design communities, such as Dribbble, is valuable, but they can also shelter your work from the lessons of reality.

The online design community is extremely supportive to one another. It’s great that everyone can so easily join such a conversation. However, constantly looking for positive feedback will not drive us to learn, so we must be careful in how eagerly we participate.

When you design for reality, clients and the public will be very hard on your work.

Although it can be difficult to hear negative feedback, we must see this as an opportunity to learn. The designer who works for their ego will be defensive during these times and will likely reject the opinion of the offender. We must learn to accept such criticisms if we want our work to grow.

The feedback loop between the designer and the client can make products that neither party could have ever made on their own.

As designers, we must realize that we can learn from the needs and conditions of a real project in order to make something new. Whereas, the feedback loop online often recycles the same content over and over again.

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Thinking Small and Local

In reading this, you might be wondering where to start. Designing for reality sounds great, but how do I get that first project? Or, if work is slow, what can I do to continue to grow?

This is very much my point – that often the answer to this is to whip up some great redesigns and post them online in the hope that they’ll lead to the next big thing. But, how can you direct your energy to design for real life instead?

Consider the challenge below.

Design for The Very Small

Instead of designing the next billion dollar chat app, what if you designed a chat app for five moms? What would that look like? Do you think something original would come out of it if you just focused on them?

  • What would your social network look like if it was designed for the people in your building?
  • What would a payment service app look like for a farmer’s market?
  • How might a calendar registry app work for a day care?
  • Would a restaurant use a better interface for how they seat customers?
  • Could high school teachers benefit from an app to communicate with parents?
  • How might a to-do list work for a small family?

Let’s face it, it’s all about our ego. We design to get recognition instead of designing to solve a real problem for a small group of people.

I would argue that only designing for a successful Dribbble shot is thinking too small. It satisfies our ego, but won’t get us anywhere. Would you have taken Facebook as a client when they were only addressing Harvard?

Focus Your Design

Gather five people in a niche and start designing a product just for them.

Don’t listen to your ego encouraging you to get likes and recognition. Focus on making the best possible product for those five people.

Here’s six points you should focus on.

  1. Involve real users in your designs as soon as possible.
  2. Solicit feedback, and consider how your product can improve.
  3. Don’t worry about scalability.
  4. Kill aesthetics. Yes the aesthetic side of the design feeds our ego. The first focus should be getting a few users.
  5. Avoid feature creep. Local problems can be complex too, but try to keep your solution simple.
  6. Make sure your ego doesn’t creep up on you. Every time you start to really love something you worked on you should be wary. Your ego must be hiding behind your love.

Let’s Work to Kill Our Egos

Whatever is next for us – failure or success – we must always continue to remember to avoid our egos.

No matter what awaits us down the road, our egos will make everything more difficult.

However, failure is the one thing that our egos will help to make permanent, unless we are willing to be students as we move forward, and learn from our mistakes.

We must take every moment as an opportunity to grow, not boost our careers.

Every great designer has experienced difficult times. You may just not realize it because all you see is their polished Dribbble accounts. What they likely aren’t telling you is that when they have failed – or found hardship – they take some kind of benefit from it.

Finally, keep in mind that many of the most successful people do not spread their work and successes around. So, look for people in your design community who are quiet about their success, or failure, and see what you can learn from them.


This post was written by Michael Abehsera, Designer for Toptal.