I landed in New York in June, giddy about my next 12 weeks as a product design intern at Postlight. But in the rush of final exams, dorm move-outs, cross-country flights, and everything else that comes with finishing a school year, I honestly hadn’t thought too much about what I wanted from the summer. The weekend before my first day, I picked my brain only to come up with a rather basic wishlist: usability testing, design systems, and presentation skills.
Three months later, I’d ventured into the weeds of all the design system files I could ever want to explore and seen how a Postlight product design team is testing their prototypes with Maze. My biggest takeaways after finishing the summer are precisely the things I didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) expect to learn.
How to design on a client project that’s moving at 300 mph
My first week of working on a project at Postlight was as tricky as it was exciting. I was eager to jump in and get to work, but learning the technicalities of a client’s industry and work was confusing to me. Having joined the project after the discovery and kickoff stages, getting a firm grasp of the design problem at hand felt like an even steeper challenge.
Things cleared up soon, thanks to incredibly supportive teammates, but still, they didn’t slow down. The project was on a tight timeline with goalposts that were shifting just about every week. It seemed like design decisions were being revised as quickly as we were making them.
I found it all surprisingly fun. I quickly learned how to keep up with frequent and large directional pivots without compromising the quality of the design work. From working with my teammates and observing how they reacted to the project’s pace, I noted:
- Try everything! It paid off to entertain every idea — even wilder designs we weren’t sure would get approved for production or iterations in which we tried components outside of the design system — at least in the beginning. Starting broad helped us narrow our sights down to the best-fitting designs more quickly than restricting ourselves to the safest and surest proposals early on.
- Don’t overlook how old work can be repurposed. My team was able to react quickly to directional pivots by constantly repurposing old layouts, components, and iterations. I learned that if you craft the building blocks of any design with intention and flexibility, you can always find a way to adapt them to new use cases (and you’ll rarely, if ever, have to start from scratch).
- Detach personal feelings from the work. I don’t mean removing emotion or empathy from work, but rather knowing that design critiques are not the same as criticisms of one’s creativity or taste. I noticed that my team always used neutral language like “this design option” — instead of “my design,” for example — when presenting to clients, which separated professional feedback from personal assessment and made pivots easier from a people perspective.
How to (actually) be a good teammate
Learning to design at the pace of a client partnership was challenging and sometimes overwhelming. And I soon realized there was a lot for me to learn from internal interactions and dynamics, too: My Postlight team was making me rethink my entire understanding of what it is like to work with other people, be helpful to them, and support group success.
This is easiest to explain with an anecdote. The designers on my project would often organize working sessions to churn ideas out and align on design direction. We’d work individually for 30 minutes, running with the task at hand however we saw fit, then reconvene to show our designs to one another and discuss as a group. I liked these chances to do quiet work alongside my teammates (and get a glimpse into their process), but they also made me nervous. I felt pressure to prove myself, so I worried that 30 minutes was too short a period for my brain to come up with any good ideas to show my teammates.
Here’s what I think I had to overcome: I’ve always thought of a team as a group of people who must put forth the absolute best of their individual knowledge, talent, skills, and resources for the collective to be successful. At Postlight, though, I realized that showing spontaneous, half-baked, scrappy 30-minute ideas to your teammates is productive — they become launching points for some of the strongest solutions the team will later build together.
I often presented my team with designs I didn’t fully believe in yet. My coworkers pushed back on choices honestly, prodded at weak spots gently, and pointed out things they liked warmly. They showed me that ideas don’t have to be groundbreaking to start with, but they taught me how to tap into each one’s potential and guided me as I learned to do so.
And, lastly: How to be okay with not being great at things
One final lesson? As an intern joining a department of overwhelmingly impressive designers, I badly wanted to match their technical expertise. Of course, I realized very quickly that I can’t know everything they know or do everything they do; I just don’t have the skills yet.
In working with teammates who helped bolster my ideas and improve my designs, and managers who openly fielded my questions every week, I came to terms with one of the biggest lessons I’ll take away: There’s no rush to become “experienced” and no real point in looking for a shortcut. Strengthening skills will take time and practice, which can be enjoyable and rewarding in itself. In the meantime, it’s okay not to be great at everything.
Hannah Chu (she/her) is an Intern, Product Design at Postlight. Interested in Postlight’s internship program? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.