The Sturdy Designer

When we were much younger people, my cousin ran into some engine problems with her car. I asked where she was going for repairs, and she said, “Oh, I’ll probably take it to the Sturdy Girls.”

The Sturdy Girls, it turned out, were a group of friends that had all, for one reason or another, learned skills we often associate with men: fixing cars, plumbing, light construction, electronics, computers. That isn’t to say that they lacked other skills; cooking, knitting, sewing, fashion, and other more “domestic” skills also thrived within the group. Neither a business nor a cooperative, it was a nickname for a circle of folks who knew how to help each other out, and believed in doing so.

The women who repaired my cousin’s car traded her the mechanical work for help identifying plants in the garden (my cousin’s a biologist). Both women learned valuable skills. What one of the Sturdy Girls lacked in knowledge another one could provide. As a group they could count on each other, and as individuals they could each hold their own.

According to Merriam-Webster, something is sturdy if it is “firmly built or constituted”. A sturdy item stays where we put it. It’s stable; it holds weight. It doesn’t tip or collapse unless a significant force is put upon it. It inspires or maintains confidence.

Note that it’s different from being strong. A sturdy building may be able to withstand collapse should a car drive through its side, but the fact that a car just drove through its side tells us that its walls weren’t exactly strong.   Strength can certainly aid sturdiness, but it’s not necessarily required.

A sturdy stool is one with at least three equal-length legs, so that no matter where the user positions their center of gravity over the stool, the stool doesn’t shift or collapse.  Chairs and tables generally have four legs, but the same principle applies.

On the other hand, if any of these items have legs of different length, or legs that aren’t attached securely to their base, or they are resting on uneven or shifting ground, then sturdiness decreases rapidly.

I’m thinking about sturdiness a lot lately.

I’m thinking about how it pertains to the websites we build. Web standards and Progressive enhancement, service workers and progressive web apps, even accessibility and inclusive design, they’re all present because we want our applications to stand up against anything we can throw at them, and work for anyone under any conditions.

I’m thinking about how it pertains to the careers we shape, and the difference between compartmentalists, specialists, and generalists in UX Design. We used to look for “T-shaped” designers and now we look for what I call “full stack” designers. I’m thinking about the never-ending debate over whether designers should code. They’re all about whether we fill the gaps that the businesses we work for need to have filled, and whether we can do so confidently.

I’m thinking about how it pertains to the teams we build, though I have a lot more learning and thinking to do around that.

I’m thinking about how we choose which businesses we’ll work for, and how sturdiness affects those decisions. As an East Coast kid, I side-eye some of the offers I hear the West Coasters talking about; stock options instead of bonuses, shares of the ownership instead of salary. At the same time I side-eye the local businesses who churn through designers like a metal shredder at a recycling plant. Is there a difference between steady work and sturdy work? Can a job be both sturdy and high risk/reward?

I’m thinking this is going to require more than one essay.

If you’re thinking about these things too, or you’re thinking you might want to hear me thinking more about some aspect of them, drop me a tweet, because it’d be good to know.

Author: Anne Gibson

anne gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)