In the 90s in India we used the word TubeLight as an insult. For someone who is slow or lights up too late. Basically the last person in the room to get the joke :)
Agencies, studios, startups and consultancies
I started off as a designer in India with a salary of about $450 per month, designing logos and artwork for brands.
That was 10 years ago.
Since then I’ve worked in ad agencies, mom & pop design studios, tech centric startups and consultancies.
I’ve worked in huge teams of 150+ and tiny teams of 2 and 3.
I’ve worked as a graphic designer in print, as an HCI researcher going door to door in India, as a UX designer in San Francisco and Bangalore.
And now I’m working with a product design team in Singapore.
I looked for a common thread in all this design experience.
The TubeLight Moment
What I found was that throughout my design career I learned amazing new things that only truly clicked much later. I either didn’t get it, got it for a moment and then it was gone, struggled to grasp or apply it in any practical way.
And when it did finally click it was usually months or years afterwards.
Let me illustrate this with a few examples.
Draw 200 trees
My first story is from the design school I attended before I became a graphic designer.
Day two of our five year course we were asked to draw two hundred trees.
My immediate response was “What?”
What was the deadline? How do we draw it? Should we use 2B pencils or something else? Is it supposed to be realistic? Or abstract? What course was this part of anyway? What paper should I use? Are we going to get grades for this?
And so we wandered about our beautiful campus with questions and more questions.
I completed the task along with my classmates, wondering what my teacher was upto. At the time I thought he was just testing us, trying to get us to break out of our usual idea of an assignment. We were coming straight out of a rigid education system and he wanted to throw us into another mindset.
Years later my TubeLight came on and I realised there were two main lessons here.
The first was — Explore, explore and explore some more.
Draw 200 trees was a great way to explore the campus for new students. You could explore different styles of drawing. You could do anything really.
The second lesson was — getting comfortable with ambiguity.
Draw 200 trees was a very vague brief. It was up to us to clarify it, come back to the first principles of it and deliberately interpret it as we wanted to.
Design a chair
I was talking to a close friend of mine about this and she remembered her own TubeLight moment from her design education.
They were told to design and build a chair out of corrugated cardboard.
It had to support the weight of a person and behave like a chair.
Like any design student she was super excited about this exercise. She worked on it for a long time with her classmates and eventually came up with something she was happy with.
However what she thought at the time was:
I’m going to be a graphic designer. That was a really fun exercise but I’m probably never going to design a chair. Oh well.
A few years later — she was working on making hygiene kits for underprivileged children in Mumbai. The goal was to encourage basic practices like washing your hands.
She remembered the material corrugated cardboard.
How it was flexible, strong, affordable, and if done right, could look good. Suddenly she could show off her in depth knowledge of the material to her colleagues and her boss. They had found the perfect material for making hygiene kits.
That was her TubeLight moment — When she realised the exercise wasn’t just about designing a chair. It was about understanding materials. Not just understanding cardboard, but understanding the depth of how you could use a material in different ways.
Explore vs. Execute
Another TubeLight moment for me was when one of my first bosses said:
Your first option is probably the best one
In design school we were pushed to try 500 different options until we found the right one. The harsh reality of the design industry was execution.
You had to deliver results — sometimes on the same day.
Explore vs. Execute. So I thought, OK this was the balancing act we have to do as designers.
Then there’s Make and Ship
If you don’t have time for 500 explorations and to truly go in depth, you can make a quick prototype.
You can workshop and build test objects. This isn’t production quality execution. But you can still explore by making things: You can convince clients with a prototype if the explorations aren’t getting through to them.
Then I discovered- Shipping. Ship your product to production.
When I joined the startup world, this is where the whole explore vs. execute conflict really clicked for me.
While working at Postman, an API testing service for developers, we grew to more than 4 million developers. That means, 4 million developers were using our software in about a year and a half. That’s a really hectic growth curve.
I learned to ship a lot! We shipped to millions of users and learned which designs were actually working, live in the real world.
The moment we knew which designs weren’t working, we would update again to millions of people and keep iterating on the fly.
It was a great way to explore and execute at the same time.
TubeLight moments are not always aha! moments.
They are (sometimes) slow dawning realisations over months and years as you delve deeper into the things you’ve learned.
Learning moments depend on being in the right place at the right time.And having the precious opportunity to practise what you have learned.
Learning design like a TubeLight
1. Most of the time you don’t truly connect the dots until much later.
2. TubeLight moments click like aha! moments.
3. Sometimes TubeLight moments are (painfully) slow dawning realisations.
4. Without the right opportunity in the industry you may never truly learn — because you can’t apply what you’ve learned.
Thank you for reading ❤
I would love to hear your TubeLight moments in the comments :)
(This article is an excerpt from my talk at the IXDA Education Summit in France in Feb 2018).
Originally published on Medium.