1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
I think I only belatedly realised that I *was* a designer long after I was already doing it. I drifted into a design role from an unconventional background. I was a English / History of Art graduate and my very first job, way back in the late 90s, was as a database application developer and I moved gradually into nascent web-based roles, from webmaster all-rounder to dedicated designer.
Reading Jeffrey Veen’s seminal The Art and Science of Web Design was probably the moment that crystallised for me a thing I unconsciously knew to be true: that I was a designer.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
I’m not a formally trained designer. I got into designing for the web in its kind of punk ‘indie web’ phase, where anyone prepared to learn HTML/CSS and enough JS to get by could do it. Our equivalent of 3 chords. I’m of the Zeldman, Webmonkey, Pixelsurgeon, K10K generation and acutely aware of just how fortunate I was to learn from that generation of pioneering designers.
The biggest hurdle is related to exactly this: imposter syndrome. Precisely because I’m not formally trained, I continue to doubt my ‘right’ to call myself a designer. Over time I’ve learned to try and see the upside in this: I think it makes me question certainties, to want to continually learn and unlearn, and to avoid getting too attached to any one way of doing things.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
I’ve consciously tried to mix my career: working client side and agency side, within the private sector and public sector, as a freelancer and as an employee. That’s a deliberate attempt to never forget what it’s like to be a client, what it’s like to be in an agency. So, I haven’t always been in the business of getting clients.
I’m going to answer this by saying that the very best decision I made in my career was to quit a really good job and go freelance. I have Leisa Reichelt to thank for that, for me giving me the confidence and the belief.
Going freelance enabled me to have way more control over what I worked on and who I worked with, and to gain a much broader experience of working with different kinds of agencies, different kinds of clients and ways of working. Going freelance made me a better designer and allowed me to work with some amazing people and organisations. (Thank you, Leisa)
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
In recent years, I’ve largely worked in-house, mainly in government. That’s in part about how I like to work: agile, multi-disciplinary teams focused on user needs and working on stuff that (to me) really matters; taking a product or service from ‘discovery’ to ‘live’ and beyond.
But much of what applies in-house is relevant to agency-side too: to be humble about your role as a designer and to see what you do as facilitating a design process, not owning it; to be open about how you work and to let others in; and, most importantly of all, to use research to see your product through the eyes of its users.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
I’ve been lucky to have only experienced that once, ironically on the last freelance contract I took. I had to involve lawyers to resolve that. I lost a lot of money, but got back just enough of what I was owed to make it worthwhile. Just. That’s my only tip: get a lawyer.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
These days, I manage teams of designers. I’ve been incredibly fortunate, at HMRC, Co-op and elsewhere, to get to lead some incredibly talented people. My role isn’t as their creative director but, in essence, to create the space to allow those designers to do their best work. That means putting good people around them, trying to find opportunities for people to work on what matters most to them, making sure design and research is happening in the right way. That means lots of meetings, lots of conversations, and too much time spent in email and Slack.
The best bit of any day is listening to designers talk about their work. Sometimes that’s because they’ve hit a block on something. The greatest moments of satisfaction I get as a designer now is sometimes having just enough distance from the problem at hand to be able to help the designer work through it, that lets a designer unlock a problem all for themselves.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
In the end, design is about communication. Being a good communicator will make you a better designer. Read widely, attend events that are on the periphery of your discipline. Write often, even if you never hit ‘publish’. Treat words as the most important material you have to design with. Keep an open mind.
Andrew Travers is head of digital design at Co-op. He has held a number of senior design positions, including as head of design at HMRC and as an interaction design director at Method. He wrote a pocket guide to ‘Interviewing for research‘ with independent imprint FiveSimpleSteps.