I spent the last month doing some work — good work — on a GitHub project that is now being killed. The solution we came up with is well loved, but as it turns out, it isn’t solving a real problem, and it wouldn’t be worth the effort it’d take to materialize it. Better one month wasted than four, right?
So there goes a month of work that I’d be proud to have in my portfolio someday, but now… go figure. Who can feel good about showcasing designs that never saw the light of day? How can you point at that work and say “this was a success story?” It’s a real punch to the gut, especially when you were proud of the work.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, and though I hope it’s the last, let’s be real: it’s probably not.
I spent my first year at DigitalOcean doing a little bit of everything. I led research on a marketing site overhaul. I created a landing page template for our “one-click apps,” and streamlined their creation flow. I built our customer success stories page. I designed team accounts, our first feature ever not aimed at individual developers. I designed a new login page and overhauled our onboarding flow.
I was very proud of all this work—until I wasn’t.
We had limited engineering resources at the time, which meant that not much of this stuff actually shipped. What did ship was very far from what I had envisioned and specified. It felt like my job had become building things up only to scope them down via more and more compromises.
That marketing site overhaul? Postponed until the research was no longer relevant. That landing page template? Didn’t meet the design standard I set and didn’t interface with our actual app, which had been the main goal. The customer success stories page? Replaced by a different design. Team accounts? Scoped down haphazardly into an awkward mess. The onboarding flow? Cool idea; didn’t happen.
I can point to literally any one of these projects and list the many ways in which it fell short. Some of these things shipped, but not in a form that I would ever want to show. In my mind, they sucked. I had filled that year with so many great projects, but by the end of it, I felt like I had nothing to show for it. It was depressing.
The experience of losing work is universal in tech. We move fast, wing things, reprioritize on a daily basis, and often lack the resources to invest in truly meaningful work.
I’ve met so many designers who’ve felt these same frustrations. They work on a project for months (or years) only to have it put on hold indefinitely. They design a solid solution only to have it spoiled by careless last-minute changes. After going through this multiple times, they’re understandably jaded.
But here’s the thing—it’s actually not so bad. Let me tell you why.
What is dead may never die
I started updating my portfolio after 2 years of leading the team and barely doing any hands-on design work. I’d been carrying this feeling of “I haven’t shipped anything worthwhile” with me for the entirety of those 2 years—so much so that I’d been putting off the portfolio for months, even though I was more than ready for a new job.
When I finally got started, I looked back at the work expecting to find only sadness, but what I found instead was genuinely shocking.
I discovered all of these instances where the work had materialized. Slowly but surely, over all those years, it had been happening—I just never made the connection.
The research I did for the marketing site ended up informing the next marketing site project. Those landing page templates are still up (at the time of writing anyway) and while they’re a bit different, they’re based on the foundation I created. The new customer success stories page is so much better than what I made at the time, but my version served as a strong stopgap and inspiration. Another designer shipped the second version of Team Accounts, which implemented my original structure and flow so much better than I possibly could have. Almost every idea from my original work on onboarding was subsequently implemented in various projects.
All of it was still there. This was mind-blowing. Here I was thinking that all my work had died when I stopped working on it. But in reality, it remained valuable to others and would outlive me through their work.
Design is a team sport
At GitHub, we use GitHub for basically everything, sometimes to a fault. But one amazing consequence of this is that everything is documented. Every product idea, every design exploration, every reason why something didn’t work. It’s all there, ripe for the picking.
My Product Manager does something wonderful on every project kickoff. He does a deep dive into the history of an idea and builds a timeline of every time it was discussed. These timelines have been invaluable in providing context and inspiration. They never fail to adjust the way I think about a certain problem.
I also can’t count the number of times my peers have sent me old design explorations that are relevant to my projects. Every single one of these is a treasure trove of inspiration, as well as a warning for what not to do and why.
This idea we’ve nurtured of the lone genius solving a problem with a solitary eureka moment is a farce. My work at GitHub is not my work. It’s built on the backs of every designer before me. It’s just a synthesis of things that were already there: a design system someone else built, a design pattern someone else came up with, an idea someone else had, research someone else did. I’ll add something of my own to the mix, and one day when I’m gone, someone else will pick up where I left off and make something better. It’s the product cycle of life.
I’m not going to give you the spiel about how you should make it about the work and not about yourself. While I do believe that there’s no room in the design process for your ego, that’s not the most helpful advice when you’re searching for a job. It isn’t practical or effective to frame your entire case around your being a great team player. Almost always, you need to show your work to get that job. Due to this unfortunate reality, it’s hard not to start associating your worth as a designer with the artifacts that have your name on them.
What I will say is that if the stuff you leave behind is important to you, practice patience and try to pay attention to all of it. There’s probably more of it than you can possibly see or remember. On closer inspection, every vague vision document I’ve written has impacted subsequent projects in some way. Every collaboration or critique of another designer’s work has left a mark. Every hallway conversation I’ve had. Every link I’ve dropped in Slack.
Two months after I left DigitalOcean, I saw they were testing a new visual overhaul that looked exactly like one of my old designs. Was that my work? Was it someone else’s? Does it really matter?
The product cycle of life
As I put together my portfolio and realized how much of this stuff had lived on, it shifted the way I saw my work.
The things we make are never done. There’s always the next feature or pivot or bug or optimization. In this way, digital design is inherently ephemeral. Our work was never meant to exist forever, and honestly, it would be a shame if it did.
But, perhaps paradoxically, our work is enduring. It exists as part of a whole, and that whole is your product, your team, your company. You might not ship that thing you want to ship, but maybe someone will ship something better 2 years down the road. And maybe that thing wouldn’t be quite as good had it not been for your efforts.
There’s a brilliant passage in Cosmos where Carl Sagan writes, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
I’ve always found this so beautiful and humbling. The atoms that make us have always been here, and they’ll be here long after we’re gone, mixing and making new things every time.
I’ve been at GitHub for about 7 months now and while I’ve shipped some great stuff, many of my more ambitious projects are still up in the air. Some didn’t make it onto our new roadmap. Others, like the one I just killed, will likely never see the light of day in their current form.
And that’s okay. These losses once felt like punches to the gut, but I now see them for what they are: small steps forward in a larger story I can’t quite make out.
So I just do my work as best I can, and have faith that it’s starstuff.
Joel led Product Design at DigitalOcean. Now he makes GitHub.
He doesn't write often, but when he does, he makes it count.
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