When I was in design school, one my professors took me out for lunch. She had noticed a shift in my attitude toward my chosen path and could tell I wanted to switch majors and evolve into anything else. A doctor, art teacher, or — ummm … an underwater welder! I told her I didn’t want to just sit at my computer all day and grind along. She was concerned but told me something I would never forget. She said, “Whatever you do Kim, work for a big company. Surround yourself with people by going to meetings, collaborating and having a large space to walk around in

So what did I do? I moved halfway across the country and got my first professional design job at a very small four-person firm. After a few years of growing as a designer, I was able to join a larger team and start thriving in the exact environment my professor told me would be best. And it was! It was great! I made a ton of friends. I learned from my design colleagues. I walked around the office A LOT. And I even rode a scooter.

Jumping forward a few more years, I found myself working at a startup as the lone designer. I moved to a position that I thought would be best at challenging my skills in this ever-changing industry. So for the last year, it’s been an all-male engineering team and me, their designer. Most days I listen to them talk about json, commits, stories, and spinning up servers. And on other days, I spend time with my headphones on working through new software features or wrapping my head around how I’m going to organize a new UX timeline for our app revamp. In the end, we all collaborate, but they don’t always want to talk about how increasing the padding by simply 15px would make a mile of difference both functionally and aesthetically. Or rather, no one cares how indifferent I feel about Pantone’s colors of the year.

Still, I do enjoy these challenges because they allow me the chance to learn as I go. I am the only one who can find certain solutions my company is asking for regarding design. I set my own rules and am learning the tough task of navigating and developing my role as it evolves. I think the hardest thing is having to deal with trusting my own instincts and learning to just say “fuck it” and move on to the next thing.

I’ve found some key things that’ve helped me stay creatively afloat in this lone-designer sea, and if you’re in the same tiny boat as me, maybe these will help inspire you too:

1. Show your work off! Put stuff on Dribble, Behance, or even Designer News. Bug your designer and non-designer friends to look at your work in progress. Sometimes a non-designer eye is the best eye, and you’ll be able to get decent feedback from these sources.

2. Take time to do a side project. It’s a good exercise from working on in-house projects. You can only look at the same color palette for so long, and if you’re open with your higher ups about this approach, you’ll gain more respect demonstrating your initiative to not burn out.

3. Start a design meeting. I’ve worked with some developers who are interested in design or have design backgrounds and have started weekly meetings where we share design and front-end resources. This allows me the chance to see how they look at things and allows me to share my design interests.

4. Start a book club! Recently I was asked to read a book on effective engineering in lieu of a group discussion. I flipped the table and had our engineers read a book about UX design so they can gain more insight about why I’m trying to push things in certain directions. In the end, all topics collide with each other, so we should be well versed in both!

5. Connect with designers outside of work. That’s easier said than done — I know. I’m fortunate enough to have stayed close with many of my old design friends — even my fellow bees! I’m always chatting them up and sharing resources. I’ve never felt stronger as a designer because my design friends and I make an effort to always learn and share things with each other.

Being the Only Designer at a Startup

Kim Sullivan

Product Designer @ HomeAway

Category: Life Lesson
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