Before 2020, I wanted to be a designer’s designer.
I prized craft, aesthetics, and creativity; I could spot mistakes one pixel off; I studied and drew letterforms for fun. I worked at a fancy design agency, with mostly other designer’s-designers, on big-budget projects to visualize ideal versions of the future: experiencing art from home with augmented reality, or making shopping easier with biometrics, or imagining ecosystems of smart devices that could anticipate users’ needs. I’d rally the client team against a vision, then hand it off to them to deal with the details of implementation.
My design work often boiled down to digital luxury: selling expensive things to rich people, or helping rich people make more money. There’s nothing like being a mercenary designer to strip away self-serving narratives about what design can do for humanity. It made me aware of how my skills were used for propaganda and manipulation — for manufacturing trust and desire, for legitimizing questionable companies, for nudging people to do that thing they’re trying not to do.
I figured I might as well use these skills to serve my own agenda. I had my own idealized visions of the future. In the middle of 2019, I left my comfortable job at the fancy agency to strike out on my own as a freelancer and figure it out. What could I achieve all on my own?
Well, by January 2020, I was frustrated with how things were going. I felt stuck doing the same work I already knew how to do, making clients (including this political startup) happy, but not feeling creatively fulfilled. Seeing other designers show off the fun, flashy, futuristic work I wanted to do — but somehow never had the energy to explore in my personal time — constantly reminded me of all my personal and professional shortcomings. I measured my self-worth from the accolades and appearances of my design output, and my own eyes told me everything was shit.
Maybe designing on a presidential campaign would mix things up. Yes, I was motivated by my intense fear of a second Trump term, but I was also driven by vanity and the aesthetics of activism. Molded by an industry where appearances matter so much, I secretly wanted the prestige and attention of working in a high-stakes, high-profile space. I didn’t understand the policy issues at hand, haven’t felt the pain of systemic injustices, didn’t know how to make real progress happen. After all, someone else always handled the implementation details.
But then the pandemic turned New York upside-down in March. My head was reeling like everyone else’s, but I also felt a weight lifted from my chest. Global upheaval trivialized my individual ambitions. That first week of lockdown, I confessed to my therapist over FaceTime, “It’s kind of a relief… I don’t have to try anymore.” It wasn’t naiveté; I had been following the novel virus since my relatives in China went into lockdown a month earlier, and I knew we were headed towards months of isolation. I recognized I how lucky I was — I was healthy and I had paying work and I didn’t have to take care of anyone else. Everyone was stuck, and nobody expected productivity. There was no need to “get ahead,” no “ahead” to get to. All I had to do was sit at home and keep drawing my little rectangles on the screen. Actually, the only thing I really had to do was… exist. Had I ever let myself feel that way before?
Of course, old habits die hard. Like many other knowledge workers without kids, I poured my energy into my job as the home and office collapsed into one. I still saw political work as my way out, but it wasn’t about the aesthetics of it anymore; it became a way to not feel helpless, a lifeline to hold on to as everything else fell apart around me. I joined the political startup full-time, feeling a deep sense of responsibility to help the team and product weather the pandemic as smoothly as possible. I wasn’t a vaccine researcher or an essential worker, but my design work was one of the few things I could control, and it might help pro-science candidates’ campaigns be a bit more effective so they could win and help get us out of this mess. Every headline, every protest, every show of federal incompetence just motivated me to work more, to squeeze out an extra drop of effort.
That isn’t to say I was a perfect little productive machine who weathered quarantine just fine because I found a meaningful outlet. Far from it. As I adjusted to my new pandemic life, my instincts to compare and compete crept back in. But I was wading deeper into political tech, unmoored from the hierarchies of mainstream tech and design. My responsibilities had changed. Rather than visualizing ideals, I had inherited imperfect systems that grated at me every day, and had to improve what I could with limited time and resources. Trying to compare my past and present was an exercise in futility.
I was constantly confused: I’m doing good work. Or am I? “Good” is whatever wins votes. Am I focusing on the wrong things? Does design even matter? What would other designers think if they saw my work? They’d probably laugh at it. None of this looks like the design industry’s idea of “good” design. Would they even think of this as “design” at all? Mostly I help make decisions about product behavior, but it’s all so invisible. How could anyone evaluate it? How am I supposed to measure my own self-worth with it?
Then another voice would inevitably kick in: There’s people out there with real problems, okay? People using the things you’re designing are actually trying to do some good in this godforsaken world. Stop it with the me-me-me. Just serve. Just do your best. You’re so lucky. Shut up.
And so I would silence my own questioning, and punt on the answer til tomorrow, then the next day, then the day after that.
By August, less than 100 days before the election, I was working late nights and weekends, figuring out the core pieces of pre-election design work. I couldn’t sleep more than 4 hours a night — my run-of-the-mill identity crisis, mixed with the ongoing stress of the world and of work, exploded into a rage that kept me awake no matter how exhausted I was. I was angry about the state of the world. Angry about things never happening fast enough. Angry about doing my best in an impossible situation and coming up short. Angry imagining how designers would judge and laugh at my work. Angry at my techie friends for being patronizing. Angry because I was worried they were right, that my efforts were inconsequential, that I was just deluding myself into self-importance. Angry because there’s no point in talking about my work when winning the election is the only thing that matters. Angry at the crushing loneliness of it all. Above all, angry at myself for being shallow and self-centered and immature when Carolyn, there’s people that are dying, because we’re all just trying our best and everyone around me is so dang patient and kind and forgiving and can’t I just learn to be patient and kind and forgiving too?
So much for not trying, and just existing. I was pouring my waking hours into this work because I cared so much, yet was constantly angry about it. Something had to give.
September was collapse. My 6-month wall. Constant exhaustion. Too tired to be angry. Too tired to try. Forced to just exist. I worked on autopilot, withdrew from social media, rode out daily anxiety spirals about civil war, body image, living situation, what have you. Looked for an escape from politics and Covid and America. Thank God for Korean dramas.
The forced detachment helped me recover and weather the remaining weeks until the election. With each day of October steeped in uncertainty, it seemed as if the fate of the nation as we knew it hinged on November 3. But somehow, as everyone else in the outside world got increasingly anxious and tense, my emotional distancing insulated me, made me strangely light and giddy. I had done all I could for the election, exercised all my agency, and prepared for a whole range of outcomes at work and at home. I was reassured hearing about our clients’ post-election plans, ranging from nationwide protests to likely Senate runoffs in Georgia. I treated myself to guarded optimism about a blue wave, as the polls suggested it might be, but if there was going to be a coup or civil war, I might as well relish my last days of certainty and peace. I supported my friends, played with the cat, spent quality time with Mom.
With everything going on, every day lasted a week. The way time was stretching, it felt like we were asymptotically approaching Election Day but would never cross over into a post-election world. But sure enough, we eventually wound down into feature freezes, then code freezes, and headed towards an eerily quiet November 3.
I thought I had emotionally prepared myself for a red mirage. I freaked the fuck out anyway.
It’s funny, I always thought being a bit closer to the action would give me a better idea of what’s going on. But on Election Night, not even being a cog in the machinery of electoral politics gave me any clue. The only thing I knew was that I knew nothing, and neither did anyone else, and I should just shut up instead of offering my own armchair analysis in a complex situation I had no control over, on events of staggering scale that I could not begin to comprehend, in a country and world that I know so little about. As the comedian Kumail Nanjiani quipped about the weeklong election confusion, nobody knows the answer, but everybody is an expert.
After all this effort, I thought I would feel ecstatic at getting Trump out of office. But mostly, I just felt back pain. The tension of Election Night, on top of a year of stress, had made me unable to stand up straight for a week. Friends congratulated me on a win, but I didn’t feel any satisfaction, any sense of reward after all this buildup. The sheer scale of a presidential election is humbling; the outcome is shaped by the convergence of many forces, large and small. I was just along for the ride, using this work to make sense of my place in a world turned upside-down.
Now, all I see is the ever-growing mountain of work that’s left to do.
There’s a lot to be angry about with our deeply flawed political system, but I need to protect my energy and focus my efforts on how I can be most effective. Less moralizing and more strategizing, to try to bring about the futures I want to see. Dealing with the drudgery of implementation. Nothing will be perfect, or even close. But at least I can try to make things better.
Since the election, I’ve mostly continued on autopilot, trying to recharge after running on empty for so long. I started to write about my year after 10 months away from writing, and struggled with my familiar habit of self-sabotaging perfectionism. I had hoped to come to some dramatic conclusion, or draw clever connections between politics and design and power, or write incisive critiques of the design industry’s shortcomings, or something. Something to make me look smart. Something to show for a lost year, a year of loss, a year of feeling lost.
But how can I tell a story that’s not done yet? January 1, 2021 is an arbitrary line in the sand. We’re living in liminal space, at an inflection point when vaccines have been approved but not widely distributed, waiting out the lame-duck period before a new administration. I’m still numb, suspended in the middle of my transformation. It’s not very fun to read an ending where the protagonist is feeling just kind of… meh.
If the work of this year has taught me anything, it’s that getting something, anything out the door in time can make all the difference. Progress over perfection. One foot in front of the other. So here I am, telling an incomplete, imperfect, unsatisfying story, and sharing it with the world before it’s capital-R Ready. And that’s okay. I’ve still got my health, my loved ones, and the privilege of existence. That’s more than enough.
I’ll keep editing this, though.