What it means to be a rock star

At Cooper, we hire stars. There, I said it. No apologies.

Not divas, not egomaniacs. Just the brightest designers we can find. You’ve got to be that good in order to leave your ego at the door, which is exactly what our methods demand.

Cooper is a highly collaborative environment: our paired design approach challenges designers to work together to deliver synthesis, ideation and exploration, design, and communication that stands up to skepticism and scrutiny. If you’re sketching design ideas, there’s someone right there with you, pointing out weak spots and pushing you to evolve the designs in ways that better serve your users’ and your client’s goals. You’d better have a deep bullpen of great ideas, because you’re going to need them. And when you’re poking holes in your partner’s design ideas, you’re going to need a stronger reason than “I like my idea better.”There’s not a lot of time for “compliment sandwiches” and “gee your hair looks great today” – it’s just a couple of folks working together to get to the best possible design as quickly as possible. So you’d better know that you’re good at what you do, and be confident that I know you’re that good, so we can just get down to the business of delighting users and clients alike.

Sure, we’ll butt heads once in a while. That’s cool, it’s part of the process. But after 15 minutes of stand-off, we’ll grab another designer (any designer, because we know they’re all playing at our level), talk them through the problem we’re trying to solve, and watch how quickly they untangle it and show us the way. And if you ask us, paired design not only yields better results, it’s also a heckuva lot more fun.

Because of the demands of our highly collaborative methods, there’s no room for the pursuit of personal glory. There’s no pointing to a design and saying “that was all me.” We’ve designed it together, vetted it together, and presented our rationale together. And a great idea is a great idea, whether it comes from our design partner, another designer on staff, the client, a user – you name it, all input is welcome.

So no, we don’t do ego-driven design. But if you want to approach your design work as a humble servant, you’ve come to the wrong place. Being a Cooper designer takes guts. It means telling the client what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. It means making a strong argument for what you feel is right. And it means making tough choices between ideal user experiences and clients’ business goals. Our clients come to us for our expertise and our willingness to tell it like it is, not because we’re the best-dressed yes-men in town.

And since when is being humble a professional requirement, anyway? I don’t expect my dentist to treat me as a colleague when determining how to alleviate my toothache, nor do I take offense when he doesn’t hand me an instrument and let me assist with my root canal. He’s spent years studying and practicing his craft. I expect him to listen to me about where it hurts, and seek my input when there are choices to be made about his treatment approach. But at the end of the day, when he’s sticking sharp instruments into my mouth, he’d better be a rock star at what he does. And if he tells me I probably know just as much about how to do his job as he does, I’m outta there. Why should the design profession be any different?

Cooperistas are the highest caliber, least ego-driven designers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. We take pride in our work and marvel at the talents of those who work alongside us. We know that the sweetest music is made by accomplished people who play together tightly – maybe even with a touch of swagger. If that makes us rock stars, so be it. Want to join the band?

P.S. If the gift of a soda can on your desk is going to offend your tender sensibilities, then you probably need not apply.

7 Comments

Kim Goodwin
You diva, you. Well said, Suzy.
Mohammed Mudassir Azeemi
Hello Suzy, It is superb you guys hire the Rock Stars, but what about those newbies who just preparing to get their feet in to the Design Firm? Rock Star mean "Famous Singer" in our context is "Famous Designer", but newbies are not famous, they just started!? So what is Rock Star really mean? Alright the article also pointed in first line that "brightest designer" but not all "brightest designers" are Rock Star. Just wondering, because I consider myself kind of Newbie in this field and lately I am feeling that those who are already there really don't put the "newbie" up-front at the moment, just did the UX Job in IxDA.org, 37Signals Job Board they most of the time contains the job that need like some "experience" already in your hand. Unlike someone who don't have it or coming from another field really don't have that much of experience that demanded in the job description. I am still wondering how the newbies can get into it? What I am doing? Well I am at the moment self-studying and applying my experiment on http://hello.NaanMap.com, let see where I will go from there.
Suzy Thompson
Hi Mohammed - Thanks for your comments. According to urban dictionary, the term rock star has no fewer than 25 different possible meanings, so let me clarify what I mean when I use it. I'm most definitely not talking about being famous - I'm talking about being awesome (which is how I get away with requiring that my dentist also be a rock star). Cooper has traditionally looked for applicants with several years' experience, but as you noted, our primary focus is on bringing in bright designers. Being bright speaks more to a designer's potential than their experience. Now more than ever, we're opening our doors to bright, shiny new designers who are bursting with potential, and mentoring them into the "rock stars" of the future.
Mohammed Mudassir Azeemi
Hello Suzy, Thank you for clarification, and yes I got the point now, and the real meaning of "Rock-Star" :) In very near future, going to join the Cooper Team.
Janet Swisher
It seems that "rock star" is a title that must be conferred by someone else, never claimed for oneself. Claiming to be a rock star means you are an egoistic diva, and therefore not a rock star. Job postings that say "we're looking for a rock star" make me want to run quickly away from that company, for two reasons. (Note that this blog post saying "we hire rock stars" is not the same thing as that.) One, who is going to respond to such a posting but self-proclaimed rock stars? Two, a company that already has some true rock stars is going to have a deep bench of people they know they want to hire when possible, and don't have to go searching for more rock stars. They might want to search for fresh talent they don't already know, but saying they're "looking for a rock star" is not the way to find it, for reason #1.
Wayne Greenwood
Well said. It's not that interaction designers shouldn't have egos, it's that their egos should be satisfied by arriving at a functional and elegant product--regardless of who provided the greater number of "winning" ideas.
Ed Power
I just realized that a critical benefit from your paired design approach is that as you critique and vet the design with each other you have prepared for "telling the client what they need to hear." How much of being able to say "why" is part of your rock star definition? How much does it show up in your interview process? Do you find that your teams tend to gravitate towards compositions of wait-for-the-ephiphany designers and talk-it-through explainers? Or do explainers attract other explainers? What do you do with a sharp designer who is self-conscious of their lack of gift of gab>

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