Weaponized Effortlessness

I used to think—and sometimes still do—that there exists an inverse correlation between professional experience and time expenditure. It’s lazy and understandable to implicitly accept that the more you do something, the easier it becomes. The easier it is, the faster it’s done. Practice makes perfect. In a professional setting, perfection becomes speed. Brevity’s not just the soul of wit, but evidence of mastery.

I started exploring graphic design, and specifically icon design, in 2006 on the MacThemes forum. I don’t recall the user counts, but I know that when I then started using Twitter in 2008—because Twitteriffic’s GUI was cool—it was a small number of folks with small social graphs, without the networking effect, echo chamber, and anonymity-at-scale that prop up today’s pundits. There was little distance from myself as a forum member to folks like Jonas Rask(then, in-between, now) and Louie Mantia (then, now) drawing icons for online randos to use.

There’s less distance between craftspeople in a cottage industry than there is between professionals where Spotify employees over four-hundred designers. Cottage industries don’t have LinkedIn hucksters shilling the latest clickbait, or clout-chasers building followers with their one quick trick. There was no singular Figma hack to bridge the gulf from aspirational to effortless. As our industry has grown, so has its volume and vacuity.

Aside: there’s an adjacent argument that tries to solve this by implicit gatekeeping. Taste cannot be (or is not?) taught, and therefore belongs to a select few. It’s convenient to ignore the noise when categorically rejecting everything new and establishing oneself as the great Taste Arbiter. Some advocate that the increased accessibility of tools like Figma have done a disservice by lowering the industry’s barrier to entry and allowing the tasteless hoards to call themselves “designers.” This is a convenient unifying theory, and wrong.

When I first started in design, I was fortunate to have an online community to learn from. The intersection of effortless—wow, look what they did, it’s so cool—approachable—less distance from me to them, and initially small followings—and humble—predating “smashing that ‘L’”—created an atmosphere that enabled kids like myself to learn from their community. I remember a teenage Jesse Dodds(then, now) joining an AIM video call to show me how to draw fire with my Wacom.

These two ideas exist on their own and intersect. I remember envying the skill and ease—the effortlessness—with which folks produced their art. I’m still motivated and intimidated by “it’s easy for them, but hard for me” while both recognizing the degree to which that feeds imposter syndrome as well as being an imitable sign of experience. We had friendly neighbors, and now have talking heads hellbent on monetizing their following.

And as much as one can aspire to effortlessness, labor and its fruits are commodified. Effortlessness on the part of an artisan signifies skill, whereas fast outcomes confer a triviality that lead to the Idea Men releasing a Midjourney update.

The more time I’ve spent as a working professional, mastery’s nuances increasingly reveal themselves. As one gains experience, one can do more, and therefore takes on not only more work but more complex work — I can take a project now whose pieces would have been insurmountable ten years ago. I’m often frustrated to find it’s still not as easy as I’d imagine, but one learns too that it never is. The projected and performative “look how easy it is” gives a dangerously misleading impression—that because it’s still hard, you aren’t doing well enough.

More dangerously, the constant drive to produce more output and produce output more frequently drives not only the commodification of one’s labor, but the commodification of others’ crafts—a zero-sum race to the bottom. What have we lost when tooling gets “your design 80% of the way?”—and when former pundits now shill snake oil? With each Midjourney update, a few engineering friends try to design an app UI from text prompts. I’ve seen plenty of designers say it’ll never be there—“AI lacks that undefinable taste that makes our work unique.” This argument sidesteps a foundational problem of respect for craft and hard-sought expertise, and it behooves us to address this directly.

Experience and hard work yield the appearance of effortlessness, and is something to grow into with time. Be wary of “one quick trick” and the “hacks to kickstart your career.” And the new, truly effortless solutions pose a new danger. With new shortcuts available to devalue our work, we must lean in more, distinguishing ourselves against the race downwards.