Justin Kropp

False Idols

06 Feb 2024

Every profession has its version of celebrity practitioner. Some professions have many, while others seem to just have a small handful that make the rounds for years in publications, conferences, panels, etc. In graphic design, Stefan Sagmeister was a the closest thing we had to a rock star, and he remained the exalted one for years. In standards-based web design it was Jeffrey Zeldman. Flash? Joshua Davis. In digital product design there seem to be countless that tread at the top, in part due to the many disciplines that are squished together and encapsulated in the term “product design”.

Our profession – design (web, product, etc) – has its idols. Folks we look up to for their design acumen and body of work, whether that work is applied or theoretical. It’s only natural – human nature even – to place these practitioners we admire up on a pedestal.

Seldom do we get to meet them and even more seldom do we get to work alongside them. We only know the image that we’ve abstracted from what we’ve seen at conference talks, interviews online, or perhaps in podcasts they host or have been guests on. The constructed image is illusory at best.

It is unwise to seek personal acquaintance with people whom one has regarded with high esteem, as they often fail to fulfill one’s expectations, resulting in disappointment. — ancient proverb

One hundred percent this.

I recently had the opportunity to work alongside someone whose work and writing I had admired for some time. Probably the better part of a decade. I’d read his book, watched his conference talks, and followed his growing body of work. He had an eloquent way of speaking about our craft as designers and could break down complex ideas into easy to digest chunks with what seemed like ease. He seemed like an affable dude.

When I got to know him, I realized that those things I admired about him were more about the work and the approach to the work, and had nothing to do with the person. The person was an entirely different… experience.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. But this disappointment is on me. I made the mistake of not only putting his work on a pedestal, I put him there too. And that’s not fair. We are never our work, I hope, and never should be.

Your profession is not your personality. Reducing yourself to any single characteristic, whether it be your title or your job performance, is a deeply damaging act. — Arthur C. Brooks