AdobeMAX Lessons for Early Career Designers

The AdobeMAX conference was last week and in addition to taking place virtually this year, it was also free for the first time ever(??). For a designer with time on her hands, it was a thrilling three days full of product reveals and demos, conversations with thought leaders and a dizzying array of breakout sessions to choose from covering an impressive range of topics.

As a first time attendee, I walked away from the experience feeling inspired by all the creative voices I heard, excited about the technological possibilities. Adobe knows how to sell their products and monoliths will always be subjected to criticism, but it’s hard to compete with the sheer level of integration that exists in the Creative Cloud suite. I walked away salivating for an iPad Pro for designing and sketching and for the first time I really felt compelled to dip my toes into the Adobe XD waters (locked margin padding! Group stacking that can be arranged by size! Prototyping control bonanza!).

I spent a lot of time just listening to a diverse spectrum of artists that represented every medium, focus, industry, nationality and background share their stories, their process, their struggles, their learnings and their voice and that was ultimately my favorite part of the conference. It wasn’t that any of them rocked my world with new information, but they reminded me of the lessons that are easily lost in the anxieties and stress of starting something new.

Everyone starts somewhere

It’s easy to look at the designers and creators we admire and imagine them always producing excellent work (probably since the time they emerged from the womb!), but it was a wonderfully comforting experience to hear all them talk about the early days of their career and how they got their start. It’s uncomfortable to not know things, or to feel uncertain of your abilities, and to assume that everyone else has got it figured out and you’re behind — all trademark early career feelings. You know logically that it’s just part of growing pains, but sometimes you just need to hear it spoken and be reminded that you’re not the only one feeling this way.

In a similar vein, it’s also encouraging to hear about other designer’s mistakes and remember that it’s all part of the learning process. A designer that I spoke to some weeks ago encouraged me to take advantage of this stage in my career and the opportunity to make mistakes — something that I thought about a lot while listening to each designer speak.

Find your voice/style and lean into it

Representation and diversity matter. They’re how we find others like us so that we don’t feel alone in our creative expressions and they’re also how we find others who aren’t like us from whom we can learn and be inspired. It’s really easy to find yourself feeling a pressure to fit in to convention and mold ourselves to an accepted style or aesthetic. Oliver Jeffers had an especially impactful session (which was one of my favorite sessions) on creativity and design and the importance of authenticity in your work. Ultimately, who are you making it for and why are you making it?

While product designers still need to follow some conventionality in terms of patterns and guidelines for inclusivity, that doesn’t mean that we have to apply a gradient to something because that’s the hot trend right now. Who is the gradient for? And who is it serving? Is it authentic to the company and the user?

Take brainstorming seriously

My other favorite session was from Stefan Sagmeister on the creative process as it specifically relates to brainstorming. He stepped through three different brainstorming strategies along with corresponding project examples. The main takeaway here was that the brain will naturally look for the easy solution and that if you really want to delve into creative solutions you need to force your brain away from the obvious and familiar. This dovetailed with another part of Oliver Jeffers’ session where he talked about the importance of allowing plenty of time to digest the work of others to avoid imitations that flirt with plagiarism.

In my post about the Zeigarnik effect, I mentioned that in my own experience, taking a break from a particularly thorny problem and going for a walk allows me to think about it indirectly which usually ends in a better solution. Stefan also encouraged this methodology and referenced the Stanford study that backs up the efficacy of it.

Now do something

Ultimately, the message of AdobeMAX was to go out and create. Even the best and most exciting products in the world are useless if they’re not being used. It might be intimidating to get started or face that blank page/screen, but to go back to the first point: everyone has to start from somewhere.

And that includes me.