Amy Weibel is a Bridge alum who moved out to San Francisco from New York City for Bridge 4. If you’re interested in joining our community, including some of the most influential designers in the world, check out Bridge and keep in touch here.
I’ve long held the personal belief that New York City is the capital of design. And maybe it’s not just personal—after all, New York is home to elite design schools like Parsons, Cooper Union, Pratt, and FIT. Not only do these schools churn out future creatives with factory-like consistency, the city attracts a steady stream of East Coast designers from RISD and SCAD. Legends of design such as Milton Glaser, Paula Sher, Paul Rand, David Carson, and Stefan Sagmeister called New York City their studio. As a budding designer, I’d be walking to school or meeting friends and I’d pass amazing design institutions, powerhouse agencies I dreamed of working for.
I lived in New York for 13 years, loving the industry. I was doing visual design, branding, and UX for media marketing companies, e-commerce, fashion brands, ad agencies, design studios, and more. As my design evolved, my process did too. I learned that perfectly kerned letter forms and dynamic visuals were only a fraction of design. I shifted my focus to the products we use, what they look like, and how a user feels about them. The way design can impact behavior became an important consideration in my design process, and the question of why a design exists made its way into every visual decision I made. This evolution turned my focus toward the Bay Area and the tech companies that were blending beautiful visual design with innovative products. So in January 2015, I packed up my bags and moved to San Francisco to begin working with Coursera through Designer Fund’s Bridge program.
Right away things were different. For one thing, I was greeted with friendly small talk. In New York, there is such an urgency to get things done that pleasantries are usually abandoned in favor of a dry, direct, and to-the-point style of communication. I was so used to being greeting with a request that when I arrived in California, every time an unknown coworker would pop by and say “good morning,” I would pause blankly, assuming they were about to ask me for something. It wasn’t until my second week that I realized people just say “good morning” here.
The transition was full of surprising challenges, and I when met with other transplanted NYC designers, I discovered that we shared similar experiences. If you, too, are considering making the move, here are a few coastal variations I wish I had been aware of.
In general, get ready to learn new software. The West Coast is tech-intensive, and my software repertoire is constantly expanding. Since coming to California, I’ve added Sketch App, Invision, Zeplin, Slack, Framer, and more.
If you’re coming from a traditional agency or graphic design background, you’re probably familiar with a waterfall design approach. It’s a linear and sequential process to tackling project development (conception, initiation, analysis, design, construction, testing, implementation, and maintenance). But a lot of the Bay Area uses an incremental approach to product development. Each coast may claim they “design fast” (which is true, they’re both fast), but doing fast design work in the waterfall approach means a doing lot of work within a condensed timeframe, while doing fast work using an incremental approach means short sprints, being prepared for an evolving set of goals and priorities. Read more about what it takes to be a lead designer at a start-up here.
There are some obvious exceptions, but many West Coast companies treat each person as an individual contributor in a collaborative process rather than creating ranks of designers based on skill and seniority. Designers with an extroverted process will find this environment more comfortable. If your process is introverted, be ready to step out of your comfort zone. You’ll need to share work in various stages of completion and accept feedback and questions from multiple channels, not just clients, fellow designers, or your director. Reach out to peers if you’re looking for design mentorship in a place with a flat organization. And keep egos in check—the design diva/superstar doesn’t really exist here.
California is a conversation culture. Face-to-face meetings and collaborative working sessions are more frequent than in NYC. Get comfortable discussing your ideas and explaining design decisions to non-designers.
This was a common observation among the designers I interviewed, along with more transparency within the business. “In New York, ad agencies seemed more closed-door and, by nature, more secretive,” says Alex Hollender, a designer who also relocated from New York to join AltSchool through Bridge. “Here, it’s an open culture. It opens up discussions to comments from everyone and creates a culture that doesn’t focus on ‘whose idea was the best.’”
New York offices are small but very well designed. California offices might not be as fancy, but there’s more elbow room. “Here they have lot more space, and the focus is on amenities,” says Sebastian Assaf, a designer at Google. Brandon Lane, former designer at Rdio & Airbnb, agrees. “In general, California offices are set up to keep employees in the building happy,” he says.
Both coasts are indisputably filled with passionate hard workers, but in California, your job isn’t necessarily your identity. “There is a huge change in work/life balance,” says Sebastian Assaf. “The valley works really hard, but you don’t wear a badge of honor for working late. We have a lot more focus on life outside of work.” Similarly, Alex Hollender observes, “In New York, design is an identity. I can tell who the designers are by the way that they look and act. In SF, it’s more of a vocation that one performs instead of a persona.”
Ask a New York designer what they do for fun, and a lot of them will reply with design-specific activities, if not simply saying, “I am a designer.” In California, you meet a lot of designers who say things like, “I rock climb, bake, do yoga, make craft beer, and I design for work.” But because West Coast designers tend to define themselves by their multiple interests, they often pursue design-related side projects that incorporate different aspects of their lives. Check out this community focusing on designer side projects for some good examples.
Be prepared to lose some of your professional vocabulary and learn new terminology. Here, short meetings are called “stand ups.” I had never heard that before I got to California. The first time I was invited to join a stand up, I almost thought it was a group leg stretch.
New York is a go-go-go culture. As a result, feedback tends to be more direct and prescriptive. Many people in California prefer constructive feedback, and being polite is extremely important. Be ready for feedback that is phrased as a question or comments that are open ended, with room for interpretation and exploration.
Engineers are your friends. The nature of working in product design means working more closely with engineers. If you’re coming from a traditional agency background or waterfall approach, you’re probably used to making a design and then handing it off. Here, engineers are at the forefront and are collaborative thought partners. The iterative and collaborative culture builds tight relationships. Introduce yourself to the engineers you work with. Invite them into creative sessions, take them out to lunch—you’ll end up with a more successful product.
Prepare for a learning curve! Your identity as a designer will change right along with your vocabulary and the software you use. It’s wonderful, but it takes some getting used to. “If you’re coming from NYC to the Bay Area, just give it time to adjust,” says Sebastian Assaf. “Culturally, it is different. Often it can be a bit of a shock. It takes a while, but once you get used to it, it’s amazing. Take advantage of the opportunities—they’re all over for designers.”
Welcome to California!