The Kiasu Designer

What it means to be a designer in a big competitive world

What is Kiasu?


  1. (of a person) having a grasping or selfish attitude arising from a fear of missing out on something.

    "kiasu parents enrol their kids in more and more tuition classes"

(from Google Translate)

Living in Singapore (it is in its own a very Singaporean term), you can’t help but sustain this mentality.

I think at some point, I’ve been there. Wanting to be seen. Wanting to be great. Wanting to be promoted so badly. Wanting to leave my mark in the design world.

I feel that I still have the kiasu-ness at this stage of my career. Especially when it relates to my survival. For me, it was when I got laid off. I wanted to prove myself again.

Also, when you see your peers, or even those designers younger than you who are now leads, managers and VPs/heads of design. Why can’t I be like them? Why, for someone old like me, who started it all earlier, things don’t work out so well or as fast as I’d like to, like I see my peers?

Then, you also encounter peers who are equally kiasu. Your teammate. Your manager(s). Your manager’s manager(s). They all want a spotlight. They want… drumrolls… The Visibility.

But the question is… do we have to do this? Is it sustainable? Is it important?

What does it cost us? What does it cost the team?

There are probably some root causes of this mentality to happen in our world today:

You and your team and the whole UX world are getting fancy seats on the effin’ golden table

Hurray! Isn’t this a good thing? Finally, after fighting hard for years, we have successfully (or nearly) made organizations aware of UX values, and make us a strategic position. What this means is then… UX is being held more accountable and thus UXers are getting more seriously business-minded. We’re making our way through the politics.

Demands for UXers are through the roof

Yep. It’s not a rocket science. When more and more people join the force, there’s when the tough (competition) gets going. Getting a UX job is different now and 5, 10 years ago. 10 years ago, we would have been interviewed only on UI design skills. Nothing else. All they needed were to see a portfolio of design explorations, and yes, you’re in. Now, totally different matter. You have to understand business, technology, governments, economy, sociology, culture, religion, cooking, behaviour, maths, public speaking, video-producing, dad-joke-making, preaching…

And all these factors make for a very tough life—now, you have to be visible or differentiated. There’s no way other than to be kiasu about it. Otherwise, probably like me, you’ll pretty much stale in your career.

What does this mean?

The worst part of this is the perception that if you’re not kiasu, or if you’re not aiming high enough, you’re not doing enough.

I’ve had advice such as, “you’ve got to be better 1% each day”, or “you’ve got to be 40% better next year”. What I say is — stop the crap. I don’t mind to undermine the importance of growing, but to say that you should be growing each day putting aside you being a human that can get tired, frustrated and face all sorts of mental issues, is just not realistic.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents want you to excel in everything? This is not it. We can’t do that all the time. Not realistically.

So this boils down to what I call — be a chill designer. ;-) If you can’t, then, at least, just be realistic.

To become a chill designer, you need to sign this Letter of Acknowledgments.

  • Acknowledge that you can’t make everyone happy. Focus on making yourself happy first, then everybody else.

  • Acknowledge that the work will never end if you don’t stop at one point, so know when to stop the work.

  • Acknowledge that you can grow 1% a day, but not everyday, and maybe sometimes not at all, be mad, and decrease -1%. That’s okay. Really.

  • Acknowledge that not everyone should grow their career to become leaders. We can become participants. We can become contributors. And leaders should appreciate this, too.

  • Acknowledge that we don’t own the team, product or the users. This can help us detach ourselves way more and be a happy observer that touches things once in a while just to try to make them better.

  • Acknowledge that we don’t have to know every single damn knowledge in the world today, and still be a good designer. Yes.

Me, signed.