Climbing Back up the Mountain

Today is the end of my fourth week as a Design Apprentice here at thoughtbot and it’s been pretty crazy so far. Before I got started I was excited to start filling in all the minor gaps in my knowledge. My first week was spent looking at documentation and demos for new tools and languages and running through tutorials. It was exciting stuff, and all seemed pretty straightforward. All I had to do was jump onto a project and I’d be contributing in no time. I was confident that I could go from Photoshop jockey to front-end guru in a matter of days.

Then I started writing code that was actually intended for release to a client’s product. The panic set in pretty quickly. The “minor gaps” were quickly revealed to be “huge gaping chasms of inexperience.” I had worked with HTML and CSS plenty of times before, but the pace was leisurely, the deadlines few and far between, the complexity very low. Now I would go from discussing a new feature in the morning to the expectation of having it complete by lunch. 

This was a pretty big wake up call for me. At my previous job I was considered the design team’s authoritative source of development knowledge. Questions came to me first and my answers were accepted as absolute truth. On the rare occasion that the designers were expected to write code (the horror!) the task would be assigned to me. I was pretty comfortable on the top of my mountain, so to be body-slammed off of it so effortlessly was a serious bruise to my ego.

It’s been two more weeks since then. Things have gotten better. I’m not blazing fast, and I don’t always do things perfectly the first time, but my confidence is back (tempered with a good dose of humility). I’ve learned a few important things about tools and process during this time. If you’re an apprentice, or a designer that’s new to the expectation of delivering front-end code, hopefully this will be of some benefit to you.


Vim will look clunky to you if you come from a background similar to mine. A few years of Dreamweaver, the eventual move to a better piece of software like Coda or Espresso, and then this? You want me to work in a text-based interface with a complete lack of familiar keyboard commands? It will seem insane, but there are some huge benefits and you should stick it out. Once you start to become familiar with it, the potential for amazing speed will become apparent. The hard part is making your hands learn all the new movements and commands. Once your muscle memory starts to kick in things will become faster. I wouldn’t say I’m great with Vim yet, but I’m at least as fast as I was in Espresso, and working hard to improve.

It’s important to note that I work in an office of Vim users. It makes sense for me to use it and I have a great support and learning network. If everyone in your office uses TextMate, or Espresso, or something else, you should probably use that too so that everyone’s on the same page.


Sass is amazing. If you know anything about CSS, just reading their documentation ought to get your blood rushing. My favorite part is the ability to nest selectors, which makes it incredibly easy to target elements correctly. Add in variables and mixins and you’ve got a very powerful extension to CSS.

If you want a set of great mixins, allow me to humbly suggest thoughtbot’s Bourbon.

Ruby on Rails

This was the hardest part for me to adapt to. I’m used to working on static sites, so finding where everything was located in the Rails framework was intimidating at first. Luckily, I get to attend workshops (for free, it’s a great perk) at thoughtbot and our Intro to Ruby on Rails workshop was incredibly helpful in teaching me to navigate an application.

Code/Design Reviews

Have someone else look at your work. A lot. More experienced people will be able to point out what you’re doing wrong and what you could be doing better. It’s important to correct these behaviors before they become habits. Don’t be timid about offering your own feedback either. Design is often a collaborative process, and talking about your ideas usually results in better work.

But what if you’re the only designer at your job, or a freelancer? Start by posting your work on Twitter or Facebook and asking other designers for some feedback. I’ve found that many people are willing to take the time to send you a short review. Dribbble can be another great place to get input.


You can almost always find answers to your problems by searching for them online. The odds of encountering an issue that somebody else hasn’t run into and solved before are incredibly low. And in our industry we’re lucky to have a lot of knowledgeable peers who enjoy writing about their solutions. 

You will improve

Most importantly, try to stay positive. You’ll have ups and downs, successes and failures, but as long as you’re moving forward you’ll be ok. I’m lucky to have people at thoughtbot who are committed to making me a better designer and a better front-end developer. Try to find people like that for yourself, either in your workplace or online. We’ve got a great community full of intelligent, helpful people. Take advantage of it.

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