The Ol' College Try is the Goal


We idolize a project that is complete in design work. We don’t organize portfolios around failed experiments, incomplete products, the good ol’ college try. Instead, our bragging rights are constrained to a spectrum of doneness, notches in a belt, that — like a belt — represent arbitrary milestones on a line that loops back on itself.

Saying this stuff out loud is a little woo, but I’m trying to temper our endemic reverence for getting things done. A complete collaborative project represents, if anything, compromise. It is the way in which a team worked together to weigh user needs against organizational objectives. As your craft matures, you’ll have one or more pieces of work — maybe even a majority, if you stick with a single company long enough — you’re not proud of. We have to pay bills. We lose battles. I have an entire list of complete projects that make me groan. You probably do, too. These are projects not only where our skills were less refined but, maybe, our design principles took a back seat to the stakeholder’s demands. Sunk cost, right?

Service design is the work of people. Cooler heads don’t always prevail, the best ideas don’t always survive rank, the time required is too much for the time given. Shipping is compromising. Sometimes, that’s to the detriment of our pride.

But — is this just a problem with perspective?

The practice of Stoicism is the practice of asking, “is this in my control?” What about shipping design work is? What control did we share, and thus forfeit? Shipping work requires you to recognize your place in the process. Your control of that process is limited, as is how a completed project turns out.

What’s in your control? You are in control of whether or not you try.

Do your best to convince them. But act on your own, if justice requires it. If met with force, then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues.

Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances; you weren’t aiming to do the impossible.

Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded.

What you set out to do is accomplished.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6 #50

Design work is a verb. Do what’s in your control virtuously.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice.

Michael Schofield