A cool side benefit of being a designer is that, the longer you’re in the game, the larger your portfolio becomes. That portfolio will, in turn, help to establish you as someone who knows what they’re doing. Every so often, it’s worthwhile to take a look through and see what you’ve accomplished over time.
The trouble is that you may not always like what you see. For me, seeing what I did years ago always seems to bring about the thought of, “What was I thinking?”
This little seed of doubt comes to me whenever I look back at my portfolio or, worse yet, when I’m forced to deal directly with a website I built way back when. Whether it’s a design choice, the code I wrote or some combination of both – I always ask that same question.
But, it’s also worth asking whether or not this is a rational reaction.
Is it Hate or Embarrassment?
As they say, hate is a strong word. To truly hate something you created, it most likely would have to have harmed you in some way. And, truth be told, it’s unlikely the website itself hurt you (although, you may have lost money or spent more time building it than it was worth).
Most likely, it’s more a feeling of embarrassment than of pure hate. In that way, looking at your past work is more like seeing your seventh grade school picture. You know the one – where you had braces and a goofy hairdo (wait a minute, that was me). The embarrassment comes from realizing that your style hasn’t aged well.
It’s much the same on the web. Just as fashions change in an instant, so do trends in design and functionality. When I look at the things I thought were cool even a few years ago, I get one of those cold shivers down my spine. But it’s all part of the natural evolution of things.
Perhaps even more than design, code really stands out to me as something I hate to look at after-the-fact. When I look at the duct-taped together solutions I often employed, it’s not a pretty sight. Whether it’s a product of laziness or that I just didn’t know what I was doing, these are often the decisions that come back to bite me. Sooner or later, a project will require that I dig back into that mess.
Regardless of why that old project sticks out like a sore thumb, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging it. In fact, it says a lot about the kind of designer you are.
The Bright Side of the Past
So we know that websites don’t age quite as gracefully as a classic painting. They were never really meant to in the first place. They’re often a product of a single moment in time, part of a world that treats just about everything as disposable. Not unlike that Smash Mouth CD collecting dust in your attic (nope, I never bit on that one).
But beyond that fact of life, there’s a very positive spin to put on your disdain for past work: It shows that you have grown as a designer and a person.
Seriously, it would be troubling to think that any of us would be exactly the same as we were years ago. A career (and a life) is quite the opposite. We learn from our experiences and we often take it upon ourselves to seek out knowledge. Because we know more than we used to, we can see the mistakes of the past with more clarity.
Knowing that, it may be more productive to think of previous works in a different context. Think of where you were in your life and the situation surrounding the project. Maybe you were just starting to tinker with a new tool or technique. Perhaps your client had some suggestions that you never could get to a satisfactory place.
Lately, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve started to redesign some of the first sites I built with WordPress. That’s been an eye-opening experience as I’ve thought back to the challenges that transition presented. Design-wise, I was still a little raw in my CSS proficiency. And there was no doubt that I didn’t have much of a grasp of PHP.
Looking back through how these sites were put together, I guess I can take solace in the fact that I somehow got them to work. And it’s also a nice measure of how far I’ve come since that time.
What Made You Who You Are Today
Dubious design and disheveled code aside, your old work led you to become the designer you are here and now. And it’s a good bet that in five years you’ll look at that amazing site you just launched and wonder, “What was I thinking?”
Instead of hiding your head in shame, try to look at it as just another step in your personal growth. Then, dig out that Smash Mouth record and…wait, don’t do that. Maybe it is better leave some things behind.