2020 — Year in Review

A year of COVID, growth, inspiration, and hard work

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Topography; a theme for 2020 — navigating through uncharted, unfamiliar areas

2020 was a year to remember, but also one to forget. From COVID disrupting all kinds of plans, forcing many of us to reinvent our daily lives at home, 2020 was a year of transformation.

Going into 2020, I had never heard of “product design”. Never heard of Sketch, Figma, XD or anything similar and only vaguely understood what UX was. It’s crazy to think that within a year I’ve accepted a dream role as a product designer at CBS, specifically CBS Sports.

For the scope of this review, I’m breaking it into themes that categorized my year in 2020, and the themes that I hope to guide my 2021. It’ll cover the good, the bad, the journey, and the foundation I’m trying to build to start my design career. I’m writing this for myself to be able to look back and reflect on this insane year and the good and bad things that came with it — let’s dive in.

Growth

As I started with, I knew nothing about design before this year and now somehow have a dream first role. While I’ll save the details for a later post, the result stems from growth. I grew primarily as a designer, leveling up from a technical standpoint, learning new skills like After Effects, Prototyping, Visual Design, and more. I knew that strong visuals should be at the core of a strong designer.

While primarily focusing on visuals, I didn’t skimp on strategy and deeper thinking. I read books that challenged my perception of technology, building, and thinking in general. I keep track of my books here.

I had a lot of really good experiences designing for startups and actually shipping products. This showed me what it takes to actually be a designer, but also showed me what I want in a career and more importantly what I don’t. It gave me a blueprint and a vision for what skills I need to go where I want.

Aside from growth as a designer, I actually felt like I got smarter in 2020. Not the know more things type of smart, but the clearer thinking and thought processes kind of smart. Comparing my thoughts to 2019 I am a completely different person, more in touch with what I perceive to be reality. This growth is a direct testament to challenging myself to take in different opinions, to try things that scare me, and read intimidating books. I’ve found that becoming a clearer thinker, for me, has been a result of scattered inputs. Forcing myself to filter the noise down to what matters.

Inspiration

Growth would’ve been impossible if I wasn’t inspired to learn every day. My inspiration started with reading the autobiography of Steve Jobs early this year. Yes, it’s cliche, but this book had a profound impact on showing me what is possible through technology. As lame as it may sound, it actually inspired me to think bigger and I’m extremely grateful for that.

I spent too much time gawking over the amazing work of talented senior designers. I wanted to be like them, to create products as they do. People like Peter Ng, Pontus Wellgraf, Jakub Antalik, Brian Lovin, and so many more.

I also found inspiration within products designed and built by people who inspire me. I started noticing good design and ideating around what it took to arrive at the final product. But it wasn’t just the clean design that inspired me, but also the interactions, the simplicity, and overall allure of creating a digital product that impacts my day-to-day work and life.

Inspiration gave me a roadmap for who I want to become as a designer, a builder, and a person. I now knew what steps to take to one day be able to create products and experiences that inspire others in the same way that I’m inspired every day. This is what motivates me to design.

Hard Work

I spent more time at my desk in 2020 than I had combined in my 21 years prior to that. Aside from golfing in the summer, and baseball in the fall, almost every waking moment was spent unashamedly at my desk learning something new.

All of my motivation stemmed from the idea of being an underdog. I didn’t go to Waterloo, Stanford, Berkeley, or some famous design school; I knew that to be considered alongside these students my work couldn’t be comparable, or similar, or even a little better. It had to be 10x, 25x, or 50x better to even get a look. To achieve that, I had to put in 10x the work that my “competition” was doing. While that may have been unrealistic, it’s what I strived for.

Part of me resents the fact that I looked at it as a competition or game, but it’s been drilled into me from playing competitive sports for 15+ years. Everything is competition when you want something that is finite because someone else always wants it too. It doesn’t always go to the person who works the hardest, is the most qualified, or simply the best, but being one of those things can drastically improve the chances.

With this realization as fuel, every day was spent head down learning or working on something that could go into my portfolio, or better me a designer. I was focused. It probably wasn’t the most healthy, but it paid off and I’m proud of it.

Outcomes

Of all of the work, reflection, inspiration, and growth that happened in 2020, by no means was it all good. I have a lot to be proud of and thankful for, but before boasting about my accomplishments I want to illustrate some of my setbacks that came with this interesting year.

  • Isolation; not so much referring to the COVID isolation, but more-so the isolation I felt as I made this transition and journey into design essentially on my own. I knew no one in tech, literally. Detroit’s tech and design scene aren’t the best, and I’m an introvert which doesn’t help either. I had so many questions but nobody to answer them, which definitely took a toll on morale every now and then.
  • Imposter Syndrome; as I landed some opportunities and traction I obviously faced imposter syndrome rooted in one simple thought. “Why me?”. I found that the best way to combat imposter syndrome was to do something I could be proud of. Even if it wasn’t the best thing ever, if I worked hard and was proud of the result, it immensely boosted my self-confidence.
  • Rejection; with COVID throwing a wrench in the job market, I was really lucky to be able to have work in the first place. As I applied for new exciting roles, ~95% came with rejection. I tried to look at this as fuel, and as a reminder that I need to get better.

As I said, 2020 wasn’t all bad, I have a lot to be proud of:

  • Graduated undergrad and finished my college baseball career (only 2 strikeouts away from 100 😭)
  • Landed a few internships at Quicken and Rapchat
  • Got to freelance with Breathwrk (1.5M + on TikTok 🤯)
  • Learned an insane amount of new things and built my first, second, and third portfolio 😅
  • Met some people online and made some friends
  • Landed my first full-time role
Twitter Embed of my tweet excited about my new job at CBS

What’s Next

Reflecting on 2020 has shaped how I look towards 2021. This past year was the start of a foundation that I hope to build upon for the foreseeable future. While I’d like to do everything, I’m trying to focus on just a few things as I enter 2021:

Systems > Goals

Setting goals is one thing, but without the systems or habits in place, you’ll never reach the end goal. I’m focusing on setting a few goals but strengthening the systems to ensure that I hit them.

Relationships

One thing I learned in 2020 was that people are everything. I hope to make and cultivate new friendships, to find mentorship, and overall just meet and talk to interesting people this year.

Detail

I want to design and build amazing products. I’ve realized that within all of the products that I deem to be “amazing” for their experience, interaction design, delight, or whatever else, is that there is insane attention to detail and craftsmanship throughout them all. If I want to design and build something great, I need to cultivate attention to detail and craftsmanship in my own life. Oh, and finally learn to code.

I wrote this review for me, but hopefully, if you made it this far you found it useful and relevant to areas in your life as well. I’m proud of my 2020, but also glad it’s over. If you’re reading this and want to be friends, hit me up on Twitter, my DMs are always open. Thanks for reading, here’s to a fulfilling 2021 for us both.

Product Designer at CBS Sports | Passionate about designing and building delightful experiences | DM me on Twitter — @jnelly2

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