Wolves and Wireframes – The Design Survivalist

—  Posted on May 10, 2024  —

Imagine you’re living back in the 17th century. You’ve settled in an area surrounded by dense forests, vast prairies, and uncharted territories. Each day you have to grapple with the harsh reality of a dangerous wilderness, and your decisions could mean the difference between prosperity and merely surviving.

Perhaps it’s me subtly longing for times of perceived simplicity, but I’ve found myself wondering if there are any similarities in our modern day careers to living when survival was at the core of everyday existence.

Fortunately, we live in a time removed from the hardships of primitive survival, but we’re all beginning to find that working in technology in the 21st century has created a whole new set of challenges.

A digital frontier

As UX and Product Designers, our livelihoods tethered to rapidly evolving technology, and our craft depends on mediums that have only emerged in recent history. While we might not have the stress of hunting or gathering, we still have to use the tools at our disposal to navigate a complex landscape filled with unpredictable and uniquely challenging problems.

Unlike other times in history, we’re not really at risk of impending danger or starvation, but for some reason many of us still feel looming threats even when we’re in seemingly good positions in our careers—Economic stress, layoffs, conflict, criticism or rejection, tight deadlines, career stagnation, burnout. Our modern day “wolves” are baring their teeth, so what tools do we have to deal with them when they show up?

Settle in beside the campfire as I share some “survival tips” on how to keep a positive and healthy mindset in your day to day work as a designer.

Survival Tip #1

Take care of your basic needs first. 🛏️

It doesn’t get any more common sense than this. We need food, water, shelter and rest. I understand the temptation—You’re cruising on a design and consider working through lunch. Or maybe you’re just not feeling well and are trying to decide if you should take a sick day. I’d argue that if you’re even asking the question, err on the side of self-preservation. Your health and well-being should always come first, and you’re no good to your team sick or emaciated.

If you find your health is suffering, check that your basic needs are being met first. I’ve had many afternoons where I wonder why I have a headache or I wonder why I’m unable to think clearly only realize that I skipped lunch or didn’t get proper sleep the night before. Well, duh!

Survival Tip #2

Set clear boundaries. 🚧

I don’t mean your employer’s boundaries. I’m talking about boundaries you set regardless of where you work. It’s not about being rigid or inflexible, but rather about establishing clear expectations that promote your personal well-being and effectiveness as an employee. I’ve worked with a lot of designers who were afraid to set boundaries because they felt it would reflect badly on them. The reality is that your colleagues will usually respect you and your time even more when you set boundaries.

It’s not about being rigid or inflexible, but rather about establishing clear expectations that promote your personal well-being and effectiveness as an employee.

Work Hours

Clearly define your work hours and stick to them as much as possible. This includes when you start and end your workday, as well as taking breaks throughout the day. We’ve all worked weekend hours or late weekday hours. Unless it’s a very specific circumstance, I do whatever I can to maintain a healthy work life balance. If I work an extra 10 hours over the weekend, I’m probably not going to come in Monday with the same amount of creative energy I need to get through the week. Just because you’re clocked in more hours doesn’t mean you’re being more productive.

Working extra hours can also set an unrealistic standard for your teammates, as well as setting a bad precedent for your product partners, engineering partners and other stakeholders.


When I was doing more hands on design work, I would often respond immediately to requests or message that came my way. I thought my value was in the speed I could work and serve others. It’s okay to be responsive, but it can sometimes signal that you don’t have clear boundaries set for yourself.

The next time you catch yourself getting distracted, finish the task you’re working on and respond in a timely way that doesn’t interrupt your workflow.


You are one person. Be realistic about what you can accomplish within a given timeframe and push back when necessary. Just remember that there will always be times where your workload ebbs and flows. I remember leading five projects at one time across multiple product partners. It was high stress, but it was only for a short time. Assess your own workload and be proactive about managing it.

Some questions to ask yourself around your workload:

  • “Do I have enough time to give the problems I need to solve my full attention?”
  • “Do I know what my top priorities are?”
  • “Are the meetings I’m attending providing value?”
  • “Is context switching affecting my ability to think clearly?”
  • “Do I feel overwhelmed by my current workload?”
  • “Is this a temporary or permanent situation?”

Survival Tip #3

Practice self-compassion. 🤗

Designers are perfectionists, and like most people, we get frustrated and defeated when we fail. What’s ironic is that we’re also kind of bad at remembering that failure is a central part of our craft.

Try to not look at yourself through the lens of your failures. Rather, reflect on your achievements daily, and let them bolster your confidence. Maybe you contributed positively to a meeting or created a kick-ass deliverable that pushed your project forward. Be mindful of the things you’re trying to get better at and make a pointed exercise of thinking back on your successes after you clock out.

Be mindful of the things you’re trying to get better at and make a pointed exercise of thinking back on your successes after you clock out.

It took me a long time to build the self-awareness around some of the things I’m not good at and may never be good at. And it took me even longer to realize that it’s completely okay! Our jobs are hard enough without us being hard on ourselves.

Survival Tip #4

Make meaningful connections. 🤝

Connect with people in a genuine and authentic way. This doesn’t always come naturally, but some of the best relationships I’ve made throughout my life have been from people I worked with.

I find having a real connection with people can be energizing, and neglecting to put in effort into connecting with others does the exact opposite. Be intentional about taking interest in people and listen to what they are saying. When you go deeper than small talk, you’ll immediately feel a big difference in the quality of your conversations and relationships.

I had an old colleague/friend tell me that they “couldn’t stand my work persona,” and it was kind of a wake up call for me to remember to try and let the veil slip here and there. We spend too much time at work to not be ourselves.

Lastly, practice kindness with those you connect with. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and don’t hang on to snap impressions. Everyone has something of value to bring, and if you don’t give them the chance to prove you wrong, you may never see it.

Survival Tip #5

Care a little less. 😌

I’m not necessarily saying care less about your work, the people you work with, your career growth, professional aspirations or anything like that. I’m saying that the projects we work on as designers are not usually a matter of life and death. It’s just pixels on screens. Whether you’re stressed about a big presentation, your performance at work or hitting a deadline, don’t let it consume you. Tomorrow is going to come regardless. Even if you’re in a stressful situation that is out of your control, remember that you’ll be okay. Sometimes things are just hard. It’s on us to decide how much we let our emotional and mental stay be influenced by them.

Final thoughts

I know that most of us are looking for more from our careers than just surviving, but the truth is many people are having to do just that, and it’s not just limited to design.

There are a ton of awesome things that make a career in design fulfilling, but like any field, it has its own drawbacks and nuances. It’s cathartic to acknowledge the things that make us frustrated about work, and it helps to put a face on our struggles that we sometimes ignore or miss. Knowing what the threats are give us a fighting chance to deal with them.

I hope that you found this insightful and I wish you the best of luck as you traverse the wild unknown of design! 🤠🎨🌲🐺

Caleb McGuire

I'm a father, husband and musician living just a little east of the Twin Cities. I've been designing awesome experiences professionally for over 15 years.

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