How To Design Your Life: Q&A With Author Mike Monteiro

How To Design Your Life: Q&A With Author Mike Monteiro

Life is a design problem. Which is why reformed Philadelphian Mike Monteiro’s new book, Design Is a Job, isn’t just about how to manoeuvre through the Web design business, it’s an instructive life lesson.

You may know Monteiro as one of Twitter’s more, er, notorious users (even the background image on his Twitter page is NSFW, to say nothing of his tweets themselves). But he’s also a legendary designer, and co-founder of Mule Design. We sat down with him to discuss his new book.

Full disclosure: Mike is a pal and pretty much a total jerk.

Gizmodo: The title itself fascinates me. Why “Design Is a Job“? Isn’t design an art, or at least a craft, that can be practised only by people with really expensive eyewear and Kraftwerk’s first album on vinyl?

Monteiro: Design is a craft in the same way that any job that requires a degree of specialisation is a craft. You need to learn how it’s done. Much like being a tailor or an electrician. And the best way to learn a craft is by spending some time learning from a more experienced practitioner as an apprentice. But if you’re going to earn a living practicing your craft you have to get comfortable with the business side of things, and this is terribly underserved in design programs. And young little rockstar pissants don’t see the need because they haven’t had their arse handed to them yet.

Gizmodo: I was struck that a lot of the advice in this book transcends web design. It certainly applied to much of the work I’ve done as a freelancer, and it almost read in parts like a philosophy book. Were you hoping to transcend the design audience? Who is it written for?

Monteiro: The book was written specifically for a web design audience because that’s the audience that I can speak to with my own experience. But obviously, the problems laid out in the book are common to lots of different craftspeople. And the book isn’t about any particular method or system, it’s about getting you comfortable in your own skin. There’s a lot about being confident and honest and communicating directly, which is obviously good to do in all aspects of your life. So in that sense, I guess you could see it as a philosophy book.

Gizmodo: You’re really down on working for free — you even actually say “never work for free.” If I’m breaking into design, and don’t have much of a portfolio, why shouldn’t I, say, design a site for my neighbor’s business, or my church, or whatever, for free? Is there ever a case for doing pro bono work?

Monteiro: Does your neighbour give his products away too, or is he trying to run that business? And isn’t the design work you’re doing ultimately going to help him get more business? I have absolutely no problem with volunteering your time and expertise to good and worthy causes. Especially if it’s something within your community, such as the church you mention. If you’re getting something out of that community, then volunteering is your way of giving back. That’s fine.

But if they’re in business it’s another story. Let’s say there’s a local restaurant that you really enjoy. And they need a website. Why not trade value for value? You’ll do their website for free in exchange for a set amount of meals or something. I think that’s fine. Even in cases where I might do discounted work for a charity, I always send them an invoice showing the standard rate with the discount applied. Because I want them to see and appreciate the value of what they’re getting.

My issue comes not from mum and pop shops or charities, but from years of having newly-funded startups show up at my door asking for free work because “they’re a startup”. That doesn’t fly. If you can spend $US150K a year on a chef to make sure your engineers have enough swordfish for lunch, you can afford to pay for design. Especially when that design is core to whether you’re successful or not.

Gizmodo: There’s a ton in this book about getting paid. Why do you think so many designers and other creative professionals are uncomfortable talking about money, and even demanding money when it’s owed them? Does it go back to mistaking work for art?

Monteiro: Because, from your previous question, even journalists ask you to justify that you should get paid for your work. It goes back to not feeling confident about the value of your work and from years of behaving and believing that the value of what you do is inherently subjective, and not a core business asset.

Gizmodo: Thanks Mike!

Monteiro: Screw you. You’re ruining journalism.

You can buy Mike’s book Design Is a Job on A Book Apart.