Design for the boring

Once, in college, I heard this story

Once, in college, I heard this story.

There’s a man who loves the Yankees. He loves photography. And he dreams one day of being good enough to photograph them professionally. But, unfortunately, he’s all grown up with a respectable job and and a family to feed, so advancements on the professional photography front are hard to come by. He ends up photographing his kid’s tee-ball league on the weekends and lamenting about what could have been.

Eventually, he gets tired of the pity party. He got into all this to shoot the Yankees and, low stakes be damned, he’s going to shoot that tee-ball league like they’re the Yankees. Predictably, as these anecdotal vignettes tend to go, he forgets his pride, focuses on the subject at hand and learns to shoot the greatest tee-ball pictures this world has ever seen. Word travels and travels and travels and finally he’s commissioned to shoot the team he’s always dreamed of. The moral ends and he lives happily ever after.

Cliché though it may be, this story actually stuck with me. As a photographer on the school paper in college, I sometimes felt like the man shooting Little League tee-ball — bummed when I had to cover boring, repetitive meetings in bare, hideously lit multi-purpose rooms. Sure, I wanted to take an assignment for the team, and sure, I wanted to practice, but was I ever going to stick that photo of a student council meeting front and center in my portfolio? I doubted it.

But then the university started getting some less than savory publicity about some unfortunate events that occurred in the Greek life community. Meetings were held by the administration. The story got picked up by the New York Times and all of a sudden, a photo of that boring room in the student union was accompanying a piece of world-class journalism. A photographer for the New York Times can’t exactly go up to their editor after an assignment and say, “Welp, the lighting sucked and the folding chairs didn’t appeal to my refined sensibilities, so I didn’t take any interesting photos.” They shot that meeting like they’d shoot a session of Congress and there was nothing magic about it except their resolve to capture something compelling in something very, very dull.

That whole incident made taking on those kinds of assignments a lot easier. In a certain way, a really exciting subject might be a crutch of sorts…armed with thousands of dollars of photography equipment and some nice, bright light, could anyone really take a bad picture of the Yankees? Well, probably, but the point is that it can be a much more engaging challenge to take a memorable photo of something mundane than to take one of something people are already excited about.

The same is true in design. I’ve had my fair share of seemingly unsexy projects that just have to get done for one reason or another — deadlines, MVPs, mandates from on high. My feet drag. But if I took one of those projects to the designer I admire most and asked them to do it instead of me, it would be because I believed them to be capable of solving anything. So essentially, I already believe that the potential for an excellent solution exists…and I might as well tackle that project by trying to pursue it myself. If things start to feel tedious or discouraging, I remember the Yankees and tell myself that boring assignments are a state of mind.

In any case, I wish I knew who told me that tee-ball story. I’d really like to thank them.

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