3 Things I Learned from Starting a Design Newsletter

This was originally posted on my Medium profile.

One of the most difficult things about being a designer is trying to keep on top of the rapid changes in our industry. Tools, process, skills, team structure, and more are evolving at an ever-increasing pace. It’s difficult to know where to look and how much time to spend keeping tabs on all of the things. I’d like to think I’m not the only one experiencing this dynamic.

So, I started an initiative last summer to solve this. I decided to:

  • Dedicate time each week to gathering and reading quality articles
  • Share the best of what I found each week with others
  • Build a directory of links that I could reference in the future
  • Build a document of key insights about the practice of design

It’s been three months since I started this work, so I’d like to share 3 lessons from my experience so far.

1. Finding quality articles is complicated

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the internet is filled with questionable content (aka hot garbage) about design. It’s too easy to take watered-down content, biased articles, and convoluted research at face value as credible content. It’s time consuming and difficult to navigate this, especially since I have limited time to read during the work day. So, the first thing that I wanted to solve for was how to protect my time. The best way to do this was to curate where I look for things to read.

Farming the good stuff
When I look for content, I need it to be credible, written with integrity, and validated by data (if possible). So, I did some research and built the best version of qualified sources list that I could. For example, HBR, UIE, NNGroup, and UserTesting are on the list. I plugged it Feedly to make it easy to sift through articles and read them on the go.

The list isn’t perfect, but it’s better than scrolling around aimlessly on Twitter and Medium. The list isn’t permanent, either. I intend to revisit it every so often to remove existing sources that aren’t up to par and to add new ones.

What should I read?
Every morning, I start by setting up the focus of my work day. Then, I spend a little time digging through my sources for things worthy of reading. I don’t always get to do this every morning. Some days, when things are busy or we’re shipping critical work, I don’t do it all.

When I do farm articles, I use the So What? test by Austin Kleon as a litmus test for what I might read and share. I start by looking for content that is relevant to the work that our team at Creative Market is doing today or will be doing soon. This keeps me focused on insights that we can take action on. When I know I need to go deep on a topic, I search for credible books. When I have extra time, I browse topics that pique my interest. My personal interests come last.

When should I read?
I skim the top sections of each article to determine if it’s worth saving. I collect a few links before figuring out which articles to give my full attention to. I read at various times — in the early morning, at lunch, in-between meetings, and at the end of the day. If I’m doing strategic work, my whole day might be reading and writing. Those are good days. I flag articles that I didn’t have time to read but think contain valuable insights.

I learned that it’s up to you to curate what you consume. You have to optimize your reading time for impact by focusing on quality and relevance over quantity.

2. Being consistent ain’t easy

Process only gets you halfway there
Before I started, I built a simple process to follow. The front-side of the process is focused on building the weekly newsletter. The back-side of the process is focused on archiving links and insights. Here is my attack plan:

  • Gather article links into my content farming doc
  • Port over selected links into each week’s newsletter in Mailchimp
  • Finish and ship the weekly newsletter (here’s an example)
  • Add the newsletter to my sign-up page
  • Port over the best links to the Links directory
  • Archive key takeaways into my insights document

I care more about archiving than building an audience for a newsletter. If that happens naturally, great. If not, that’s fine too. My focus is on gathering insights for my team and I first. If others benefit from this work, then that’s icing on the cake.

Permission to skip a week
Out of the last 18 weeks, I published the newsletter 14 times. I missed 4 weeks because of busier work weeks and travel. I gave myself permission to skip those weeks because I wanted to make sure that doing good work at my job came first. Even though I missed 4 weeks, I still managed to do some light article farming during those times. The thing that fell off my radar was actually reading the articles I gathered.

I learned that while it’s important to keep your commitment to a personal initiative, it’s necessary to prioritize your real work first. If my work is suffering just to ship a weekly newsletter, then I’m doing it all wrong.

3. The short game builds the long one

Before I started, the idea of running an email newsletter seemed like a waste of time. Sometimes it still feels that way. But, the newsletter was never the goal. It’s a short game that I play each week that keeps me focused on the long game — constantly educating myself about the discipline of design. The link directory and insights document are everything.

In the past, I found myself scrambling during my free time to browse dozens of channels to find whatever popular design articles were on the rise. That’s no way to research about design. Where’s the discipline? What’s the purpose of that?

These days, it feels great to consciously decide to trade a bit of my attention every week to learn about new things that matter. I’m documenting in the right way so that I can easily find these things later. This helps me stay focused on the work that really matters every day.

I might not have all the answers or direct experiences yet, but I can build a place that makes it easy to quickly find the best insights about anything related to the discipline of design. That’s valuable.

I learned that the right long game can be built by the short game, one day at a time. If I spend my time wisely each week, I’ll do my best work today while simultaneously better position myself in the future.

Parting thoughts

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that reading isn’t a substitute for talking to your peers about what they’ve learned. And, to take that one step further, talking to your peers is not a substitute for learning by doing it yourself.

When you mix together focused reading, talking with the right peers about the right things, and good ole hands-on experience, your growth has limitless potential.

Follow along by subscribing to my newsletter and bookmarking my links page.

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