Value Yourself and Only Stay at a Company If They Love You

Author: Phin Barnes - Partner

Morgan Knutson has been a designer, thinker, and doer for over a decade, first as a designer-activist for nonprofits, then as a creative at Google where he was responsible for the Google+ overhaul, and now at Dropbox where he heads up the mobile design team. In this Design+ Startup talk, Knutson explores the mantras that have enabled him to do his job so well. Below is an interpretation, not a transcript, of Knutson's talk.


Imagine being a part of a company’s most ambitious and exciting project, in this case the Google+ redesign. Now, envision having the opportunity to sit within a few feet of the two people ultimately responsible for managing the project for the entire duration of your work. Exciting, right? 

But, what if these higher-ups that were within ear shot never even bothered to acknowledge your efforts or spoke to you for the entire duration of the project? You’d probably agree that would suck.

This was Knutson’s reality on the Google+ team.

Any designer’s goal should be to contribute to a company where the CEO and leadership team not only realize that the employees are effectively the ones building their company, but where they genuinely respect and care about them, too. When Knutson eventually left his post at Google for one at Dropbox, he experienced culture shock.  

Shortly after he changed teams, he was approached by Arash Ferdowsi, Co-Founder and CTO at Dropbox, at a company function; Ferdowsi came over, gave Knutson a burly hug, and thanked him for the work he had done. The reality is, Ferdowsi didn’t have to talk to Knutson, but made the effort because he cares deeply about the people working for him regardless of title.

To get the most out of your job, you have to love the people you work with, and they need to love you back. It’s pretty simple, but even great companies rarely get it right.

When Knutson began working as a UI designer on the Photos team at Google, one of his first objectives was to meet his new co-workers and help them without any direct path for reciprocity. He just did it because he wanted to. And, within a few months, he had established meaningful relationships with people on various teams. By making a series of high-impact contributions, he was able to create lasting relationships. You never know when you’re going to need those friends or how it will come back to you, but it usually does.

For Knutson, the power of these relationships became obvious over one holiday break while at Google. Knutson took on a complete redesign of Google+ by himself, and in a few days, he had developed an entire visual framework. But he couldn’t build this prototype on his own. Just months earlier, however, he had helped an incredibly talented engineer with a project. Because Knutson had established this meaningful relationship, and because his colleague now trusted him, they were able to build something together — regardless of their title or job responsibility. They simply wanted to support each other’s work.  

When you want to get things done, it helps to have friends who can make it happen.

Making mistakes is sometimes the only way to learn certain lessons. Don’t be afraid to design with reckless abandon, experiment with those weird options, and get totally out of this world. 

A few years ago, Knutson met a group of guys laughing loudly while recounting traumatic experiences. Each man went on to reveal a story more unfortunate than the person before him.

In the process of making friends and leading your projects, you’re bound to screw up. It’s crucial, however, that you don’t get down on yourself when things aren’t going your way.

These people were standing around laughing because they could now see the benefit of their mistakes — so lighten up, learn, keep trusting and move on.

In summary, don’t be afraid to screw up!

One last lesson — make sure you’re doing the right job, and if you are not, do something different.

While creating an educational iPhone app for his three-year-old daughter, Knutson needed a feedback mechanism to convey that the end user was doing something incorrectly. During the sound design process, he ended up deciding on an animated bass sound that would alert you to your mistake in a direct way. When Knutson went to beta test the updated version of the app with his daughter, she screwed up — but the sound that followed literally made her cry.

Knutson had done the job he set out to do and executed flawlessly. He was trying to tell the user that what she did was not the right thing. But, it was extremely negative and resulted in tears (for older customers the response would have been quitting the app, never to return). He eventually took out the sound and added some positive reinforcement and encouragement via voice-overs.

This was an important lesson for Knutson on product design. He was doing his job so well that it made his daughter cry and her tears told him it simply was not the right job.

No matter what you do, be sure you guide yourself to go big. Aim very high, because if you shoot for the next galaxy you might just hit the moon.

So don't forget: 

  • Guide yourself to go big and aim high.
  • Be ok making mistakes.
  • Do the right job.
  • Focus on friendship.
  • Love and respect those around you.