How to speak up and impact conversations as a junior designer

Illustration by Nate Treme

A large part of my week is spent in meeting rooms, design critiques, and spontaneous discussions. This was true when I was an individual contributor, and it became increasingly so after I transitioned into a lead role few years back and then into a head of studio role in the beginning of 2017. I have to have every Wednesday fully blocked out so that I can focus on completing tasks on my plate, and I try very hard to keep those days meeting-free as intended.

But I value these meetings, as long as they are kept to be efficient in time and effective in discussion flows. It’s an opportunity to get your idea out, get feedback, cross-pollinate ideas from everyone, and impact conversations. Sitting in a room full of talented peers and co-workers, it is common to find yourself swimming in a pool overflowing with ideas. These ideas may conflict with each other, and some of them may even conflict with your own. Unless you can speak up and make your points relevant to others, the exchange of these ideas can overwhelm your voice from being heard and even affect what you were working on.

Though this is unfortunate, fewer people may be leaning in by default to hear you out when you are a junior designer or an individual contributor in some meetings. As a result, these situations require you to try harder to get your point across. But whether you are in the room amongst your peers, leads, managers, or directors, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. I’ve thought about what I tried when I was a junior designer, and put together a number of ways that worked for me.

But why?

As a junior designer, you may already be fully occupied and perhaps satisfied with solely focusing on completing the design tasks delegated to you by your manager. There isn’t anything wrong with that, and doing that well may already be handful. However, it is worth taking a step further.

Output from design critiques, weekly sync, and hallway conversations often turns into a set of tasks and action items, some of which will be delegated to you. By speaking up, you can build a sense of ownership to what will come out as the meeting output and increase the chance of working things that align with your point-of-view. Wouldn’t that be more fulfilling compared to potentially working on something that seem irrelevant to your interests & passion?

The second reason is for growth. Ability to influence others with your ideas becomes more important as you grow into a senior designer and then a lead or manager role. It’s never too early to start working on ways to do so.

Step One — Don’t hesitate

Source : Giphy

The first step is throwing your opinion out there without hesitation, whether it gets incorporated into the final outcome or not. It is okay to speak up even if it is may be different from other’s POV (point-of-view) and better if it is clear how your opinion adds a new perspective to the process. The beauty of working together is, the team can look at something from varying perspectives and understand the landscape better before making a decision. Every perspective counts.

Here’s what I’ve found useful when

  1. Your idea is aligned with everyone else’s
  2. Your idea is different from everyone else’s
  3. Your idea conflicts with your manager’s
  4. You are just too shy to speak up

How-to #1 : When your idea already aligns with everyone else’s

It’s easy to keep your opinion to yourself and let others discuss among themselves. Even if you don’t, it feels okay to do so since nothing will fall out of expectations.

Still, speak up. Express and advocate for the other person’s point-of-view that you relate with. This is an easy opportunity to let others be aware that you have an opinion on the matter and that your perspective counts.

How-to #2 : When your idea is different from everyone else’s

There can be two or more reasons to why you have a different POV from everyone else. Sometimes your idea is just bad. In this case, someone else may also have thought about the same idea and decided not to share it for that reason. Other times, your idea is good but others are not up to speed with you yet. ; You have to be as objective with your ideas as you can be, so you can tell when people aren’t receptive because the ideas are bad. So, how can you speak up when it is the latter and not the former?

What holds you back from speaking up might be fear of criticism or dismissal.

  1. If you are afraid that your perspective will get criticized, remind yourself that everyone on the project has the common goal of creating the best output. If people were to really criticize, remember that it is not out of personal spite or for the sake of criticizing. Constructive criticism is required to push an idea to its full potential. Welcome the criticism. Embrace every criticism as an aid to beef up your idea. Treat each criticism as a harmless litmus test. A riskier approach would be pushing the same idea straight out into the wild when you could have vetted it with internal design critiques and experts.
  2. It is natural to feel bad when your idea is shut down and dismissed. But imagining that slight chance of rejection shouldn’t be the reason to stay silent. A POV similar to yours may not have been presented yet, not because people disagree with it but because people may have not thought about it. If so, you are adding a unique value by speaking up whether your opinion gets reflected or not. Turns out, this is true in many cases. If the idea does get dismissed for a good reason, it still wouldn’t be as bad as the doubt & regret you will have in your mind from not speaking up.

How-to #3 : When your idea conflicts with your manager’s POV

People on the project like your design, but your manager or project lead isn’t so sure. Rather than taking the lukewarm response as the answer and putting a halt on your idea, what can you do?

Constructive discussion with your manager is a good thing. But you also don’t want to appear arguing out of pure stubbornness, nor appear as if you are spending too much time on something that wouldn’t be valuable to the project. So,

  1. Take a step back to understand the problem your manager is focused on and articulate it. Don’t look at it from a solution-based perspective, but do so from a problem & value-based perspective. If you have a hard time defining the problem in a crisp way, consult your manager. It is okay to ask many questions.
  2. Frame your idea and make a proposal to your manager in a way that highlights how the idea effectively solves the problem in #1. If you can also show that the ROI of the team’s resources on the idea is effective, bring it up.
  3. If the idea still isn’t well received, accept it and ask for clear feedback. See if there were additional factors that should have been accounted for in the design, if there were any elements that were well aligned, and how the misaligned elements could have been improved. Treat this as a learning opportunity and do better next time.

How-to #4 : When you are just too shy to speak up

Try these.

Make it a goal to say one thing at every meeting. Whether it’s big or small, say one thing before you walk out of the meeting room. When you have a butterfly in your stomach during a discussion, that’s likely a sign that there’s something you want to share with others. Don’t think too hard. Just speak up the first thought that crosses your mind.

Source : Giphy

If you are too shy to speak up verbally, draw out your idea & put it up where everyone in the room can see. Have people start discussing it, and you can naturally join in the conversation and explain how you sketched out your thoughts.

Step Two — Impacting conversations

I started writing with the intention of creating a single post, but realized midway that it may be better suited to reorganize them into separate posts. So, part two on the topic under way.

Regardless of your level, it’s important to speak up when you have an opinion and add your perspective when looking at a given problem, design, or topic. You are already beginning to make impact just by speaking up. It is okay to have a different opinion, but it’s not okay to stay silent about it. I hope some of the ways that worked for me can be of some help to others. If you have ways that worked for you, I would love to learn about them also.

Author: Sungjoon Steve Won

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