When my career began in 2006 I started personally referring to a phenomenon I called “The Internet Standard”. The Internet Standard is a level of professionalism and quality of work that is high enough to be impressive on the Internet. This standard is typically much more demanding than the expectations of a small company or local community. If you follow along I’ll share some of my experiences dealing with, and responding to, self-imposed pressures of The Internet Standard.
The Internet can be Overwhelming
When I started my career I thought I was a good web designer. Co-workers, friends, and family mostly seemed to agree. One friend even referred to me as having “mad web design skills”. This feedback and support was great. It was encouraging, but I doubted my abilities because of The Internet Standard. It seemed like every time I learned something new, I became aware that there were many more things I didn’t know about. I was teaching myself through online research and studying the work of others. I was constantly being reminded that there are people way smarter and way more talented than me, despite what the people closest to me thought.
I would browse del.icio.us and design communities, looking for inspiration or tutorials. I was overwhelmed by just how much good content I kept discovering. A lot of it was multitudes better than anything I was capable of. Paradoxically I thought to myself “I might be too skilled to work for a local mom-and-pop web design shop, but I’m nowhere near qualified for the really good UI design jobs”. This was hard, and I often ended up questioning my abilities. Was I really even good? Do the people who know me and care about me just over-estimate my skills?
A Sobering Realization
As I worked through this I eventually realized that I was comparing myself to some of the best designers and developers in the entire world. I realized that their work wasn’t an accurate representation of many real job markets. They were the outliers; the best of the best. The work they were doing was influencing and impacting the rest of the industry, because many other people just like me were watching and learning. Many of these professionals were specialists who were really great in a certain area, but perhaps weak in others. I had the kind of revelation I imagine young girls have when they realize that pictures of models on the front of magazine covers are photoshopped and unattainable. I was able to find a healthy way of using their work as inspiration and motivation to grow my own skill set by simply trying to imitate and work up to The Internet Standard.
Adapting to The Internet Standard
Whenever I would create a website or development project I would ask myself “how can I make it better?” Often I would find that my boss would be pleased because it was “good enough”, and it served to meet the business need. For all intents and purposes my work on the project could have ended there, and everyone would have been happy. Except I wanted to sharpen my skills, so I would evaluate my work by comparing it to The Internet Standard. If I submitted a screenshot of the project to an online gallery, would it get any recognition, or would it just get overlooked? So I would push forward, often on my own unpaid time, tweaking and polishing until I was content. I would use techniques I picked up on from world-class designers, and both the project and my skills would simultaneously grow by leaps and bounds.
One of the more heartbreaking observations I’ve witnessed during my career is seeing other motivated co-workers inadvertently held back by tunnel vision. The focus is (rightly so) on meeting the needs and expectations of the CTO or the Design Lead, and doing a good job according to the expectations of the company. The end project turns out really good, but could it still be better? One of the most effective ways for taking a project from good to great, I believe, is by evaluating it to The Internet Standard.
This sometimes requires a certain level of humility and a willingness to be uncomfortable, because there’s a lot of pride that comes along with a job well done. After you’ve put in a lot of effort and the boss is happy with your work, naturally the last thing you probably want to hear is someone else say it could still be better, or to compare it to the work of others at the risk of feeling like your best isn’t good enough. From my experience whenever a designer thinks their work is good enough or worse they think it is better than it really is, this mindset ends up being the biggest hurdle for improvement. So I simply want to suggest asking a few questions during a project that I find helpful when trying to go from good to great:
- Sure, the boss likes it, but what can I do so he’s amazed?
- Would this be impressive on a site like dribbble, or behance, or another gallery?
- Would other designers respect my work, or be inspired by this project?
- How does this hold up to The Internet Standard?
A Real World Example
The screenshots below are from one of my favorite projects, a web application called AutoBook. The “before” image is a screen-shot of a live-running production dashboard. It was an amalgamation of styles, influences, and constraints. However nearly everyone involved agreed that it was really good as it was. After spending a lot of time working on this project as a front-end developer, while thinking to myself that this could be so much better, I came up with some comps to demonstrate my ideas. My motivations for this came specifically from trying to work up to The Internet Standard. I made a conscious effort to not personally settle for the level of quality that I knew would be considered “good enough”. Instead I tried to match the level of quality of highly talented designers I admired from afar, on the Internet.
This project still doesn’t live up to the exceptionally high standards you can expect from world-class user interface designers, but for me personally, it was a very rewarding experience. At the time, it helped propel my career immeasurably more than if I had chosen to simply match the status quo.
A Final Note
The Internet Standard is something that can be overwhelming and destructive, or it can be a force that pushes you out of your comfort zone and demands your best work. I encourage you to take an attitude that embraces its brutal honesty with a willingness to adapt. But remember, if you were to compare your basketball skills to Lebron it doesn’t mean you suck. It just means you’re no where near as good as an NBA superstar. If you’re not careful The Internet Standard can have a way of making you feel like there are a lot more designers and developers out there with Lebron-esque talents than there really are.